After a short stop at a chest to pick up what had to be too many coins, Will followed Brick out of Jocelyn’s shop. First to the upper district, then further south to the middle district. He found himself looking at what he two weeks ago would have called large buildings, and thinking about how small they looked. One building in particular caught his attention as he remembered seeing it on his way through the district two weeks ago. Now he found himself thinking that it was only three stories tall, so compared to the buildings in the upper district it wasn’t large at all.
Amazing how fast one's expectations could change. Will had only been in the upper district for a week, but the houses here already seemed so different.
“The contrast is rather striking, isn’t it?” Brick asked from beside him.
“I guess. I didn’t know it would feel so different so fast.” Will said. Brick shrugged.
“It’s all perspective. I remember the first time I saw the lower district... felt like walking through the palace sewers all over again... ” He shivered dramatically, then continued. “Eventually I got over it. Now where I am doesn’t matter to me at all. Anywhere’s good as long as there’s people to meet and money to be made. Hopefully from said people.”
“You’re quite honest about your character...” Will said.
“It’s just the truth. No use lying to myself.” Brick said. “I find that lies are best when spent on other people.”
“I can at least agree with the first part of that statement.” Will said. Internally he agreed with the second half as well as well, but he didn’t feel comfortable stating that out loud.
“It’s people like me that’ll survive the longest, trust me." Brick said. "Like roaches, we are.”
“How flattering.” Will said. Brick just shrugged.
The two walked in silence for a time, before Brick turned then into a side-street leading deeper into the city. This was still the middle district, but it was closer to the lower districts and the houses were both smaller and more crammed together. No streets build for double wagons to pass through here. Brick continued a bit further, before making a sudden and sharp turn left into an alley, where he stopped dead. Will, who was following behind, wound up almost colliding with the taller man’s back he stopped so suddenly.
“We’re here.” Brick said. He looked at Will expectantly.
Will looked around. The alley was narrow, only barely wide enough for the two of them to fit together, and devoid of any entrances at all. On the far side was only the wall of another house. There were some windows on both that and on his right, but they were too high up to reach from the ground. However what was most confusing was that the alley was clean. Will had seen many alleys like this, he liked to call them dumping grounds, where waste and trash were dumped out from the houses around it. They usually smelled even worse than the docks, but this one smelled clean. Not just the absence of garbage, but actually clean.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“Follow me.” Brick said with a smirk, and began to walk further down into the alley. He walked up to beside the back wall, then turned to the house without windows and bent down.
“Pay attention to this part.” he said. Will nodded, and watched as Brick pulled a vial and a small parchment from his pocket. The vial looked similar to the bottle Will had brought into Jocelyn’s shop a week ago, only slightly smaller. A swirling symbol of some kind was drawn on the parchment. Brick carefully uncorked the bottle and let one drop of the liquid inside fall onto the parchment. Instantly the symbol began to squirm and almost vibrate. The black ink began to shine with a new luster, and Will watched transfixed as the many swirling lines seemed to coil around themselves. Ever turning in an extremely complex pattern. He could feel it, but he didn’t need to. He could tell this was supernatural just by looking.
Brick took the parchment and pressed it against the side of the building, and Will could hear a soft ‘click’ as the wood of the around the parchment began to go blurry. Will stumbled back in surprise, but found himself unable to look away as the blurring of the wood began to swirl in the same pattern as the symbol. It only lasted a few seconds before the blurriness began to fade, taking the feeling with it, and revealing a door in the wall where the blurriness had been. Brick rose to his feet, and carefully folded up the parchment before putting it and the vial back in his pocket.
“Let’s go.” he said.
He opened the door and ushered Will inside. When the door closed behind them Will finally couldn’t keep his mouth shut anymore.
“What was that?!” he asked. Brick led them deeper into the house and down a set of stairs leading underground.
“A 'dissolving' talisman. Impressive, isn't it?” Brick said with a grin. “It’s temporary as well, so we don’t have to redo the concealment either; it’ll just revert back to wall on its own in a minute.”
“A real talisman." Will whspered. He’d heard of them before, but nothing more than fanciful stories that before this had sounded more fantasy than reality. Of talismans that could call lightning from the sky, or set water on fire. He’d never seen one in reality before. Now that he had, perhaps there was more to those stories than he’d thought. When he asked as much, Brick blinked and turned to face him. When he saw Will wasn’t kidding, he blinked again for emphasis, then cleared his throat.
“You actually don’t know?” he asked. Will shook his head, which caused Brick to frown. “How? I know you come from the countryside, but still…”
“Hey,” Will said. “I’ve been in the city for over a year and I haven’t learned about it here either.”
“That I get even less.” Brick said. “Plus you’re working for an alchemist. An alchemist! I figured Jocelyn or Alice would have explained them to you.” When Will shook his head he sighed and said. “Well, whatever. I guess they must have had their reasons… Or they’re like me and just assume you already know.”
“You think so? Is it really such common knowledge?” Will asked.
“Apparently it isn’t.” Brick said. He shook his head. “Perspective again. It’s a funny thing, really. Hold up here a moment...”
The two men arrived at the bottom of the stairs, leading into an underground passage. Will couldn’t see very far into the passage as the only light was coming from behind them, but he could tell it wasn’t a sewer. It was made of hardened dirt for one thing, and was held up with wooden support poles. Will had seen similar structures before, back in the mine outside Annville. But he’d seen nothing of the like since arriving in Hinden. After all, why build a hole supported with only wood and dirt underneath were you live?
Hanging from the vertical beam on the right were a few alchemical lanterns that Will had seen before, if only recently since working for Jocelyn. Brick took one of them and twisted the small wheel on it’s side to turn the lantern on. It began to glow with a soft but unnaturally steady light. Nothing like the flickering light of a flame.
“It’s just a bit further now.” Brick said. He led Will down the passage, which ended in a three way intersection only a few dozen steps from the stairs. There he took a left, then right, then left again.
“This seems very… overly hidden.” Will said after a while.
“You can’t be too careful in this line of work.” Brick said. “I have many enemies, and some of them are downright dreadful.”
“That does not surprise me in the least.” Will said. Brick shot him a glare that Will pretended not to notice. “If it’s so secret, why are you showing it to me this easily. We just met an hour ago.”
“I trust Jocelyn.” Brick said simply. “And I make a point not to hide things from people I work with. Secrets can be poisonous between companions.”
“That’s a surprisingly healthy attitude.”
“I’m a scoundrel, not a fool.” Brick said. “Here we are.” The two finally arrived at a second staircase, this one leading up. Brick led the way with Will trailing behind, and the two exited the underground passage and stepped out into… a kitchen. Will could tell from the smell, the smell of spices mixed with grilled meat, blended with the smell of baked bread.
A rather short woman stood by a counter with her hair tied up in a net. She looked up from in the middle of kneading dough, as they came in, and Will noticed she had a tattoo on the side of her face. It went from beside her eye down the left side of her face before disappearing under her shirt. It seemed somehow familiar in structure, but Will was sure he’d never seen it before. The woman didn’t seem at all surprised to see them, which thinking about it Will really should have expected.
“Hey Brick.” she said. She put down the dough and dusted her flowery hands on her apron. She cocked her head towards Will. “This the new guy?”
“Yeah. Will, Rebecca. Rebecca, Will” Brick said to each of them in turn. The woman nodded, walked forward and held out a fist. “Pleasure.” She said. “I’d shake your hand but I’m all flowery, so settle for a casual bump for now.” Will accepted the fistbump, and couldn’t help but smile internally. He wasn’t even sure at what exactly.
“Nice to meet you too.” He said. Another door opened opposite the one Will had entered from, and another woman stepped through. She was almost as tall as Will, with short black hair, a pair of spectacles and clad in the same ornate vest and trousers Brick wore. She gave everyone a glance before sitting down on a chair by the workbench and taking out a cloth to begin cleaning her glasses. Brick clapped his hands together.
“And that’s Marien.” Brick said gleefully. “Great, now that everyone’s here we can get down to business. As Will knows and you both have probably guessed, maestra Jocelyn has requested us to help bring her some Red Lanterns from the Highlands. I’ve mostly mentioned everything before, but there’s one thing I feel I must mention again before we set out. Rives is a nasty piece of work. Don’t let him catch you out there.” He turned to look at Will. “That goes for you especially, Will. You’re not as used to this as we are. You need to act carefully.”
“Good. Now there's still some preparation to be done before we can set out. Firstly we need to rent the horses. Will, could you do that?”
Will started, not having expected to be the one asked. But he quickly nodded. Renting a group of horses wasn’t too difficult.
“Great.” Brick said. “Marien, you get some carriers for the mushrooms,” Marien nodded.
“I have some in storage... Seven or eight I think?” she said. Her voice was deeper than Rebeccas, Will noticed. But that was mostly because Rebeccas was unusually high, even for a girl.
“Get them all.” Brick said. “Seven is fine, but eight is better. Rebecca you’re responsible for provisions. It’ll take two days of fast riding to get to the caves, and probably three days back.”
Rebecca nodded. “I’ll prepare enough for a week. Shouldn’t be a problem.” she said.
“Great.” Brick said. “And while you do that I’ll go and keep an eye on Rives and his cronies, see what they’re up to. We don’t want to take the same route as them if we can help it. Since we’re basically setting out at the same time any delay would risk us running into each other. And that’s something we do not want to happen.” He surveyed the faces of them all in turn, focusing especially on Will. When he thought they’d all got the message he nodded. “That's decided, then. Let’s go Will, I’ll follow you back outside.”
Will turned to leave, and as he walked through the door he turned around and faced the pair of women. “It was nice to meet you both.”He said. It never hurt to be polite. They both started, but both smiled and nodded back. As the door shut, Brick gave him a clap on the shoulder.
“Nice one,” he said. “That’ll surely surprise the two of them. They aren’t too used to people being friendly.” He took out his lantern again as they began to walk once more through the passage.
“I wasn’t intending on it being surprising…” Will said.
“I know, and they could probably tell that too.” Brick laughed. “That makes it even better.”
As they reached the first intersection, he slapped his palm on his forehead and stopped.
“Ah right,” he said dramatically. He turned to Will who’d stopped a few steps ahead. “I forgot something back there I need to bring with me. Do you remember the way back?” Will nodded, but also said.
“It’s fine, I can wait here.”
“No, no.” Brick said. “It’s hidden behind a special lock. It’ll take me a few minutes to get it. And it’ll take you longer to find good horses than for me to just look at Rives. We need to get going as fast as we can. It’s better you go first.”
“Ok, I guess….” Will said, unconvinced. He wasn’t sure why Brick was trying to get rid of him, but it didn’t really matter to him whether he waited or went on his own anyway. So why rock the boat?
“Great, great.” Brick said and handed Will the lantern. “Take that, and when you get to the door there’s a button on the inside that’ll open it for you. No need to use any talismans from this side.”
Will nodded and accepted the lantern. Not a second after the lantern left his grip did Brick turn around and sprint back down the passage. Will stared after him for a moment. Was there really something this important back there?
Eventually he sighed and turned back. He wasn’t going to find out, and for once he actually had a job to do. Time to go rent horses.
Brick entered their hidden kitchen for a second time and shut the door carefully behind him after making sure Will had turned around and begun to head out. Inside, Rebecca and Marien were still there waiting for him. Although Rebecca had already gone back to her dough, and Marien had moved on from polishing her glasses and was now intently focused on reading a book.
“So, what did you learn today?” Brick asked. “And what do you think of our new friend?”
Rebecca had split the dough into four equal parts, and was now in the process of shaping the third one into a sphere. She furrowed her brow as she spoke. “He seems too pretty for a dockworker.” she said. “And I don't like the way he’s acting so oblivious all the time.” She shrugged. “I don’t know, but something’s weird about him.”
You’re right about that one, oh boy you have no clue. Brick thought.
“Isn’t he just naive?” Marien said. “He seemed genuine to me.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t genuine, just that he was strange.” Rebecca said. “Anyway, that’s less important. Rives has hired two large wagons for transporting goods, as well as thirteen members of the Guild to act as workmen.” Brick frowned.
“I don’t like it.” he said. “Not at all.”
Rebecca nodded. “He’s being much too obvious. He has to know people will find out what he’s up to.”
“It’s all but a certainty that he’s counting on it, if he’s this obvious about it.” Brick said. “What I don’t know is why?”
“Maybe the find is a fake and he’s setting some sort of trap” Marian suggested, but Brick shook his head.
“I’ve already looked into that one, and the find is definitely real. If there is a trap it’s some other kind. I just don’t know…”
“That’s why you’re going to investigate aren’t you?” Marien asked. “To learn for sure what he’s up to.”
“Speaking of, I should get ready to do that.” Brick said. He went further into the kitchen and opened a cabinet and pulled out a small wooden box. On the front was an ornate carving in the shape of a golden lion with a silvery mane, the sigil of the Hinden Alchemical Guild’s Grandmaster. Brick opened the box and took out the small bottle inside. Without so much as thinking twice, he opened it and swallowed it all down in one guld.
“Bleergh.” he groaned. “Why can’t they just make this stuff taste better? One of these days I won’t drink these anymore.”
“You say that every time.” Rebecca pointed out.
“And I mean it.” Brick said. As he spoke his face began to warp as the bones shifted around. The pitch of his voice changed, becoming deeper, and his eyes grew closer together. His lips grew thinner, almost to a line, and he lost a full inch of height.
“Always a pleasure to watch that.” Rebecca grimaced. Marien however nodded seriously, and studied Brick’s new face intently. He gave them both a wide smile, which felt weird with his new mouth.
“How do I look this time?” he asked. Instead of answering, Marien just held up a small mirror in front of his face. Brick looked into it, then winced.
“Oh come on.” he groaned.