In the storm

The dark ribbon of the ancient road faded into obscurity just past the far edge of the collection of toppled ruins. The purple haze of twilight, along with the gritty cloud of the gathering dust storm made it seem the whole world ended just there.

Celia pushed the filter mask back onto her weather-scarred face, locking the goggles to the mouthpiece with a solid-sounding click. Her ankle-length leather coat clapped against the back of her legs as she marched to the nearest shelter, a concrete wall only partially collapsed. It had patches in it, where some hopeful engineer had tried to reinforce the crumbling structure. The thin woman smirked and shook her head. In the early days, people thought their old lives and the old ways could be salvaged. They all learned better, though, it just took some a little longer than others.

The scavenger shook off her backpack and withdrew a black, two-foot-long tube from inside. She unscrewed the cap and tapped out the contents: six ring-topped bolts, each about eight inches long, a folded and rolled sheet of clear material, and a round metal device with several switches.

Celia carefully placed the bolts and activator under her backpack, then unrolled the thick, clear plastiform. She quickly shook it out to its full size, six feet by twelve. Then she reached under the black canvas bag for the bolts. She bolted the plastiform to the concrete wall, about three feet high, with two of the pins, then bolted the trailing end of the clear sheet to the ground, about four feet away. The last two bolts pinned the covering to the wall, just at the base, where the ancient building met the hard, parched ground.

Satisfied with her work, Celia reached under her bag once again, retrieving the circular activator. Touching each bolt in turn with the activator, the savvy scavenger turned the plastiform from a sheet of flapping nothing to a nearly impenetrable dome. The electro-carbon nanites infused in the plastic kept the dome stiff, solid, and unbreakable.

Smiling to herself, Celia settled to the ground to wait out the storm. The prize she was searching for was here, she was sure, and no one else knew about it. Comfortable in her shelter, she opened her pack once more, this time pulling out a bottle of lukewarm water and two tins of some mystery meal she’d picked up on her last resupply run.

The shadow that crossed above her dome startled Celia. She didn’t know which was worse, that it was human-shaped, or that it preceded the roar of the dust storm by a mere six seconds.

The timing of its appearance was worst, she decided, when the storm was over. But only because it was one of a multitude that covered her plastiform dome.


The Admiral’s Galleon

Gareth knew he’d been told correctly when he spied the inn, “The Admiral’s Galleon” looming ahead of him, at the end of the massive stone pier. It was no place for hiding, shrinking violets. It was a place for sailors and other adventurers to gather and boast of their travels, near and far.

The first three floors of the inn were typical of most other inns, except in their extreme size. But when the two galleons atop the main building were considered, the size of the main tavern was understandable.

The small, quiet man stood contemplating the audacity of The Admiral’s Galleon. He wasn’t sure if the inn had been built, purposely, or if it had come about by some perplexing happenstance. Gareth was new to the area, but already he had found out that storms on the Sea of Torban could be devastatingly bizarre. He wondered, briefly, if the inn had simply been in the wrong place at the right time, or if the builders had merely been devilishly clever.

No matter, Gareth thought to himself, Lucallis isn’t going to wait while I ponder the local architecture.

With a sighed grunt, the raven-haired man lowered his stormy gray eyes to the door of the inn and set his shoulders. Lucallis, his contact and never a friend, had summoned him here, and the burly thieves’ guild master had never been known for his patience.

The smoky interior of the inn wasn’t much different, to Gareth’s eyes, than the misty, foggy grayness of the pier. Noisy patrons called for ale, dinner, or other delectables, but there was no sign of Lucallis.

Stomping the chill from his bones, the frail-looking man made his way to the main bar, perusing the occupants of the main room once again. The barkeep, a portly, balding man with rheumy eyes and scarlet nose, greeted Gareth cheerily. A grumbled question from the newcomer wiped the happiness from the barkeep, who shakily pointed the way to a set of stairs, along the back wall, that would lead Gareth upward, to his contact, and his fate.

The second and third floors of The Admiral’s Galleon were ordinary. Small rooms crowded in upon one another, dim lighting, and barely clothed women lounging in open doorways. Gareth snorted, his grim face and stormy eyes keeping the women from barring his passage.

At the top of the stairs, on the third floor, the simple staircase changed, becoming a serpentine switchback maze of stairs. The fourth floor, the belly of the first galleon, was nearly identical to the main floor of the inn. A solid wood slab made the bar top along the longest side of the room, where another barkeep stood, and round tables, full of people, crowded the middle of the dark room. The barkeep here was similar to the first in every aspect but one. This one wasn’t smiling and cheerful. Instead, he seemed to be waiting, sullenly, for Gareth to appear in his domain. His fat, sausage-fingered hand pointed to the opposite wall, to the dimly gaping opening that signaled more stairs.

Gareth grunted, a grim, sardonic smile tugging at his lips. The warmth from the levels below floated upward, making this second common area significantly warmer than the first. But if it was an attempt to make visitors loosen their warm, and concealing, clothes, it was lost on the fragile man, who gripped tighter to his cloak as he entered the portal that would lead him further into The Admiral’s Galleon.

The next three levels were rooms, doors spaced further apart, indicating larger, more luxurious appointments. There were no enticing women here. Neither were there guards, but Gareth’s sharp eyes caught the gleaming of various door locks and his senses tingled with the magic in each one.

The serpentine stairs continued, to the belly of the second, topmost, galleon. Here, as he expected, was another common area, although this one obviously courted the less-than-common patron. The barkeep, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, shapely woman in a deep cut emerald dress, grinned at Gareth as he emerged from the darkened stairway. Her slender fingers, dazzling with diamonds, rubies and other gems, pointed to a doorway. A perfectly groomed eyebrow lifted in mocking question when the small man paused to consider her.

The pause lasted mere seconds, before Gareth stomped his way to the doorway. Musical laughter rang out behind him when the heretofore unseen wooden door slammed closed on his back.

“Ahh, Gareth,” he heard from the darkness, “I see you’ve arrived, and on time for once.”

The small man heard rustling in the blackness. He guessed there were three others there, besides the guild master he had expected.

“Show me.” Lucallis’ voice was hungrily frantic.

From beneath his gray cloak, Gareth removed a simple, rope bound, linen bag. His fingers trembled, causing him to fumble a bit with the knot, but he steadied himself, willing his hands to do their duty.

From within the grimy bag, the slender man drew a gem, as large as his palm. The pale green peridot glimmered in the darkness, then flared into life as the magic drew the ebony night into itself. The closed, darkened interior of Lucallis’ private room empowered the lightstone.

The illumination flared brighter, until the room was washed in mid-day light. The two dark elves behind Lucallis shielded their eyes with slender, leather-clad fingers, but the portly thieves’s guild master and the crimson clad woman next to him simply stared, transfixed by the lightstone.

“You have done well, thief,” the goddess said. “Your wish is granted. Return home, to your grateful, resurrected, family.”

The traitor

An expectant hush fell over the gathered assembly. No one was entirely sure what was going to be announced, but everyone expected some dramatic happening. There had to be, what with the town criers calling each and every citizen to attend the event. Not one person was spared the required assembly, not even the smallest of the children.

While the town square had been built for a gathering of the town’s people, it was built many generations before and the population had grown considerably, so the wide, red cobblestone area was crowded now, with people stacked like cord-wood along the outer edges. The sea of people in their drab brown or gray workaday clothes mumbled and speculated on why the gathering had been called. The drone of voices masked the hard, steady thump of the approaching guards.

The first to notice the warriors was a small tow-headed boy, held aloft on his blacksmith father’s broad shoulders. The boy’s short, wide hands knocked on the top of his father’s bald head, drawing the big man’s attention to the deep forest green uniforms that signaled the royal guard.

Before the blacksmith could climb his way out of the street, the lead guard approached, shoving unwary people to the side, clearing a way for the procession to enter the already overcrowded square. The blacksmith was roughly shoved aside. His boy, sensing the fall, jumped from his father’s shoulders just before the man stumbled to his knees. The anguished scream that erupted from the blacksmith alarmed and alerted the square to the new arrivals. Helpful hands lifted the huge man and held him steady, while blood dripped steadily from the protruding bone in his left ankle.

The group of marching men strong-armed their way into the middle of the square, establishing a perimeter around a central figure. Many in the crowd ignored the figure, too concerned for their own safety to notice that the prince, and heir to the throne, stood in their midst.

A town crier, hauled aloft by him companions, quieted the crowd’s growing unease by announcing the prince’s arrival.

With the newly hushed townsfolk gathered and waiting, the royal guardsmen turned to the prince, weapons drawn. With a flourish, the captain of the guard stripped the royal blue robes from the prince, revealing the words “traitor” written in scarlet letters on the prince’s chest and back. The prince bowed his head, resigned to his fate.

The villagers gasped as one, then cheered in a single voice when the guardsmen moved away from the town center. The mob descended before the guardsmen were clear of the cobblestoned square. The green uniformed men dashed headlong from the maelstrom, most barely holding their rioting breakfasts in check.

The captain of the guard was the only one to watch the maddened crowd tear into the traitorous prince. He pitied the prince, not because the prince had been innocent, but because the prince was paying the price for being caught. The tall, blonde man shrugged to himself, sure his part in the treachery had gone unnoticed.

Until the small, white-haired blacksmith’s smiling son pulled the silver dagger from his perforated stomach.