“See?! I smeggin’ told you so!”
The young and much-too-green guard showed a wide smile. He was obviously rather proud of himself. Or full of himself, depending on one’s point of view.
“Fine!” shouted the older guard in frustration. “I admit you were right!”
Those five words almost felt like someone stabbing him in the gut with a pitchfork. And guardsman Thomas had hands on experience with that particular sensation. It was indeed as unpleasant as it sounded.
“Now would you kindly shut the fuck up about it?”
“Hah,” scoffed the rookie, “I’ll shut up when you pay up!”
“... Alright. Here.”
Thomas reached into his pocket and brought out a King piece, which was an extra large gold coin worth 50 GP. He passed it resentfully to the cocky youngster.
“Hope you choke on it.”
“Haha! C’mon man, don’t be so bitter. It was fair game and you know it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say. I still say you cheated somehow.”
The two guardsmen had made a ‘friendly’ bet. The younger one, Shaw, insisted he could do a backflip while wearing the full plate armor that had become standard issue for all of Erosa’s guards. The squirt could barely even move in it properly when he signed up 5 days ago, yet he still pulled it off like it was nothing. The gains from power-Leveling were indeed frightening.
After their bit of fun concluded, the two resumed keeping an eye on the empty streets just inside the city’s northern gate. Of course, such frivolity was normally looked down upon, but these men understood that a little bit of excitement was sometimes necessary to keep the mind alert. That held especially true during these boring night shifts, and the four guards stationed nearby agreed completely. But still, they had jobs to do, so they kept the distractions to a bare minimum.
About an hour or so later the sky started lighting up, signifying that dawn was fast approaching and with it would also come Thomas’s replacement. However, rather than being elated, the middle-aged guard felt a sense disquiet. Sister Lyo, who he had known for several years, had went out on another trip to gather Moonblossoms.
This had been going on for about three weeks now and had pretty much become a routine. She always said she stuck around the relatively safe grasslands immediately to the west of the city and always had that tall stranger with her for protection. Tonight was the first time she identified him as her cousin, though. Well, it’s not like Thomas actually asked her about it, either, so he had no grounds to complain.
Still, they were taking too long. Usually they’d only be gone for a few hours, but that time had long since passed. And this happened right after Thomas had asked her about needing extra protection. If they turned up missing or even dead - No, he couldn’t think that way. He had to believe they were alright, that they merely got caught up in something and would return shortly.
However, sister Lyo and her bodyguard did not return before the end of his shift. His replacement came to take over his post at dawn and Thomas was then supposed to return to the barracks. Part of him wanted to stay and keep an eye out for her, but that wouldn’t really solve anything. Not to mention that he would get in deep shit if he failed to check in his arms and armor on time. He’d heard what happened to some ‘deserters’ that tried to pull a fast one and abscond with the expensive items, and unlike those people, Thomas liked his head attached to the rest of his body.
He trudged off towards the barracks in the middle of the city along with the rest of his shift-mates. Shaw still had a cocky grin on his face due to winning that 50 GP bet and was already bragging about how he would spend it all at the nearest pub. Thomas had no such desires right now, he was way too tired and had too much on his mind to deal with those rowdy rookies. Having young blood like them around was reassuring in case shit went down, but their attitude could use some adjustment. As for an old dog like Thomas, he simply had to do the things he could.
Which right now amounted to checking in his gear, reporting the missing persons and getting some shuteye. Even if he was worried about the young nun, he would surely not be the only one. The temple was bound to organize a search party once they found out one of their own had gone missing.
But some part of him still clung to the hope that sister Lyo and her cousin would-
A shadow passed over Thomas, sending an unnatural chill down his spine. Turning around he spotted a large, cloaked figure walking along in the middle of the mostly deserted street. An extremely tall, heavy-set figure.
“Hey… Hey!” he called. “Hey you! Big guy in the cloak! Stop right there!”
The over 2-meter tall man froze and steadily turned around to face him. His head was wrapped in a blue cloth and the heavy black cloak obscured his form. What little could be seen of his face was sickly pale, and his yellow eyes seemed to lick over Thomas, as if tasting him. He was also carrying a heavy-looking bag in one arm that bulged out slightly from beneath his cloak.
The guardsman blinked a few times in surprise. This clearly wasn’t the cousin from last night, what the hell was he thinking? Sure, the size was similar, but that was pretty much it. Even if he couldn’t see the face it was quite clear this wasn’t the same person.
“I apologize, my mistake. Carry on, citizen.”
The stranger nodded in response and went about his way. Thomas watched the hooded figure absentmindedly until it disappeared inside the nearby building belonging to the Mercenary Guild. Now that he thought about it, didn’t that guy seem incredibly suspicious after all? That bad feeling he gave off was-
Thomas shook his head to shake off his errant thoughts. His tired, worried mind was probably playing tricks on him. To think he accosted a random pedestrian like that. Having decided that getting some rest was his top priority, he jogged up the street to catch up to his younger colleagues and continued on his way towards the barracks. Once there he checked in his gear, reported the absence of sister Lyo and her bodyguard, crawled into his bunk and slept the sleep of the dead. Just as planned.
He woke up about 6 hours later at high noon and immediately got up, then went to have a combination of lunch and breakfast. Luckfast. Once his hunger was properly satiated and his hazy mind cleared up, he went out of the barracks and into the keep proper. He was there to see his direct superior and ask him if there’d been any sign of sister Lyo. Thomas was the one who filed the missing person’s report when he came back to the barracks earlier this morning, not to mention he was one of the last few people to see her alive. He felt he had to at least see this through to the end.
The guardsman climbed up the stone steps inside the keep, up to the third floor. He walked down one hallway, then another and finally a third before reaching his destination.
“Enter,” came a clear voice from the other side of the door.
Thomas then quickly opened it and walked inside.
The office itself was nothing extraordinary, just a desk, a few chairs and a whole lot of cabinets. And sitting behind that desk was a slightly overweight balding man with a goatee scribbling along on a piece of paper. The out-of-uniform guardsman walked up to the foot of the desk and saluted.
“Lieutenant Porkins, sir! Guardsman Thomas requesting a moment of your time, sir!”
The man with the oddly fitting name put down his quill and looked up.
“Guardsman Thomas, eh?”
“Yes, sir! I’m here to inquire about the missing person, Lyo Rosero, sir.”
“Are you?” asked Porkins while raising an eyebrow. “Hmm, this is good. Excellent timing, actually. I was just about to have someone send for you regarding that matter. Come, have a seat.”
He gestured at the empty chair opposite the desk, which the simple guardsman respectfully took.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now then,” said Porkins while putting away the document he was working on. “As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the temple of Teresa immediately organized and sent out a search party in response to your report. They’ve been scouring the area north and west of the city all the way to the Troll Woods, but there has been no sign of her or this cousin of hers.”
“Nothing at all, sir?”
“No, guardsman. Not a trace of her or that swordsman. It’s like they disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
This was unusual. Thomas was sure that Lyo was at least a Level 40 Priestess and it was quite obvious that armored juggernaut of a bodyguard would not go down easily. There ought to be at least some signs of a struggle if a fight broke out.
“That is… unsettling. Sir.”
“Indeed. Tell me, guardsman, how long have you known the young miss Rosero?”
“About 4 years, sir.”
“And were you two close?”
“Not particularly, sir. I’d say we were more than acquaintances, but not quite friends. Sir.”
After all, a gate guardsman and a nun have very little interaction aside from seeing each other in passing every so often. Thomas was a somewhat devout man so he made sure to treat clergy her with extra care and respect, but that was about the gist of it.
“And her cousin?”
“Only seen him a few times these past few weeks, sir. We haven’t even exchanged words. I didn’t even know he was her cousin until she mentioned it last night, sir.”
“Did she actually say that, though?”
“What were her exact words, guardsman?”
He thought back to that memorable meeting, trying to remember the details. Well, it was more or less the only highlight of the night, so that wasn’t difficult.
“Ah… I believe her exact words were ‘I trust my cousin with my life,’ sir.”
“And you didn’t feel the presence of Taboo after she said that?”
She was a Hammerite sworn in service to Teresa. If she had told a lie back then, then Thomas was sure he would’ve instantaneously felt the Taboo from her. Merely looking at someone branded with that heretic’s mark of a Skill made his skin crawl. A truly disgusting, unsettling feeling, as if looking at a cockroach.
“I see… But she did not explicitly state that the man present there was her actual cousin, did she?”
Porkins had a point. Lyo had stated that she trusted her cousin. Not that the man next to her was her cousin.
“... Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“What the hell is going on? Sir?”
The lieutenant’s tone of voice suggested he had some misgivings about this missing person.
“Hmm, I suppose if anyone deserves to know, it’s you. You are involved in this after all.”
Porkins leaned forward and put his elbows on top of the desk.
“I had a meeting with the bishop from Teresa’s temple a few hours ago. We had words at length about our missing nun. It would appear she had been acting strangely these last few weeks, ever since this stranger showed up. Our investigation of her personal effects this morning revealed she did indeed have a cousin, but that person should be living on the other side of the country right now.”
In other words, while she didn’t lie, she didn’t exactly reveal the truth either.
“The thing is,” continued Porkins, “I can forgive her for wanting to keep her affairs private. I always felt that was a bit unfair towards those people. However, her disappearance yesterday happened with some… interesting timing.”
That’s when Thomas finally realized what the lieutenant was getting at.
A valuable treasure disappeared from the temple of Teresa. A nun that served in that very same temple left the city several hours afterwards and disappeared without prior notice and with no trace. She even had a hunky, well-armed bodyguard with her. Someone she misled others to believe was her relative. And all this happened during a time of civil unrest caused by an incomprehensible disaster, which was bound to drive sane people to do stupid things out of their misguided fear.
“Ohhh… shit,” cursed Thomas.
It didn’t take a genius to connect those dots and paint the picture of a disillusioned nun robbing her temple and running off with some unrequited lover.
“A whole cartload of it,” confirmed Porkins. “Just keep your conclusions to yourself, guardsman. We really cannot afford to have people start questioning the temples. Or even worse - having the Goddess herself question us.”
The overweight officer sighed and sat back in his high chair. He rubbed his temple, suggesting this affair was giving him no end of troubles.
“Our official stance at this point is that they’re merely missing persons, understood?”
Of course Thomas understood why such things had to be done. He didn’t like it, but it was a necessary measure. Besides, he felt like he had no room to comment, after all, that suspect slipped away under his watch. Was he perhaps too trusting for this sort of work? No, that’s not it. If he couldn’t even trust the word of a Hammerite, then he’d probably be a failure as a human being.
“Good. Your cooperation is appreciated, guardsman. Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Thomas stood up, saluted once more, and then exited the office. He passed by the lieutenant’s new assistant on the way out and exchanged greetings, although his gaze lingered on her for several seconds. That was a bit uncharacteristic of him, but he couldn’t help himself. Something about that girl just seemed to demand his attention. It was probably the combination of her beautiful face, enormous rack and plump ass.
Wait, was that why the lieutenant hired her a few days ago? Nah, couldn’t be. Porkins was a happily married and dutiful man. If he hired her, then it was probably for her ability rather than her looks.
Thomas shook away the improper thoughts. His superior officer’s personal life really wasn’t high on his list of priorities. He still had a lot of time to waste before his next shift started, so he simply went for a walk around town. He rarely had the chance to just relax these days since he was either on duty or drilling the new recruits. They could’ve at least bumped his pay if they were going to dump those kids on his shoulders. Ah, but they did technically up his pay a week ago, didn’t they? Guess he had no more room for-
There it was again! That vague feeling of panic which caused the hair on his neck standing on end out of nowhere. Looking back he once again saw that looming cloaked figure - the one he mistook for Lyo’s ‘cousin.’ The off-duty guard watched curiously as the figure walked off, leaving him keenly aware that this bizarre sensation was not just his imagination. But what was it, then? The feeling he gave off was distinctly different from Taboo, yet equally unpleasant. Maybe some other strange Skill he had? Come to think of it, he was one of those Mercenary Guild types and what little could be seen of his skin looked terrible. Maybe it was a curse of some sort? Or some strange disease? Would it really be safe to let someone like that walk around town?
“It wouldn’t hurt to be prudent…”
He decided to follow the man, just in case. However, that guy’s huge stride was a bit difficult for Thomas to follow without breaking out into a light run. He followed him for a good 10 minutes before his target finally reached his destination - a dirty storefront with a broken window. He put a bandaged pale hand on the door and pushed it open with a slight ringing noise, then stepped inside.
Thomas looked over the store’s exterior. The sign over the door caught his attention.
“Fizzy’s Fidgety Widgets?” he read aloud. “Huh. I’m sure I’ve heard about it before…”
Erosa was a sprawling city. Even someone who had lived here his whole life would be hard pressed to say he knew every store in town. In fact, Thomas only knew about 4 of them since he visited them regularly. And 2 of those were pubs! So how come he knew about this one? It definitely didn’t seem like the type of place he would shop at.
However, the curious guard didn’t have time to collect his thoughts as the masked man from earlier came out less than a minute later.
A squeaky voice came from inside, just before the door shut closed. The man once again walked off with wide strides, only this time he was carrying a blue metal toolbox with him. Was that his purchase? Thomas kept stalking the figure for almost 15 minutes, but ended up losing him when he started ducking into some alleys towards the slums. Well, that was to be expected. Those narrow, twisting paths almost seemed designed to shake off pursuers. This seemed like the end the line.
The diligent guard wouldn’t be dissuaded so easily, though. Something felt horribly off about that guy and he wanted to make sure he wasn’t a threat. When did such a person even arrive here? Thomas was sure he’d remember a conspicuous shape like that if it ever passed through the gate! Ah, but then again, that only accounted for one of two entrances into the city, didn’t it? Not to mention that Thomas usually pulled the graveyard shift with minimal foot traffic anyway.
So what about this suspect of his? What sort of person was he? When, exactly, did he show up around town? These were all very good questions, and the truth could usually be gleaned by asking those who interacted with the suspect on a daily basis.
Well, the Mercenary Guild protected all their employees’ information, so visiting them without a warrant was pointless. This courtesy also extended towards any outsourced employees it did business with. And those people were pretty damn good at doing business.
Come to think of it, that masked man also stopped by a few street stalls to buy a disturbing amount of meat, didn’t he? Ah, but those vendors were probably complete strangers, judging from their startled reactions when he loomed over them.
Then the only place left was that store, huh?
He retraced his steps there and stood in front of the door. Again, he was sure he had heard that bizarre name somewhere, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Well, thinking about it out here wasn’t going to get him anywhere. He pushed open the door and went inside.
The inside of the store was, to put it simply, pure chaos. There also appeared to be a series of dents and cracks in the floor, ceiling and walls.
“Just a minute!”
The squeaky voice that came out from the slightly ajar door in the corner was also quite familiar. The gentle whirring and grinding noise from beyond died down and a tiny person with a huge head and pink pigtails stepped out.
“Did you forget something, Bo- Oh. Sorry, wrong person.”
Her cheerful voice turned deadpan and monotone when she lifted the goggles from her eyes and noticed the man in her store was not the one she expected. That seemed to jog Thomas’s memory. Wasn’t this the place that gnomish inventor was supposed to live? Ah, but the person from those rumors was an old coot, which meant this must be the daughter. What was her name again?
“... Cammy Fizzlespunk, right?”
The gnome closed her eyes and let out a long, drawn out sigh.
“Well, at least you got the initials right. It’s Cornie Fizzlesprocket, but you can just call me Fizzy.”
“Right… sorry about that.”
“It’s okay. You humans never get my name right anyway. Well, most of you don’t, at any rate.”
The gnome set down the tools in her hands, took off her gloves and goggles and assumed her position behind the counter.
“So, what can I help you with?”
“Ah, I actually want to inquire about the tall gentleman in the heavy cloak that was here half an hour ago.”
The gnome’s eyes instantly narrowed to a point.
“You don’t look like no guard.”
“That is, I’m off duty…”
“Uh-huh. Well, Mister Off Duty, if you’re not going to buy anything, then leave.”
“I’ll, uh, I’ll buy information! About the man-”
Fizzy brought out a weird device. Its main body was that of a thick metal tube, dyed black. It had a crossbow-like grip and trigger on one end and short metal rod tipped with a tiny blue-colored ball sticking out the other end of it. It had a number of weird metal protrusions sticking out of it. She was holding it with two hands and pointing the rounded end directly at her rude visitor.
“But I-” stammered Thomas.
Various bits and pieces on the device lit up and tiny arcs of electricity extended out from the rounded tip.
“I said out,” said the gnome in a clearly threatening manner.
Thomas wasn’t sure what the device was, but surely even a gnome wasn’t nutty enough to attack someone in broad daylight, right? He raised his hands in the air trying to show he bore no hostility.
“Please calm down, ma’am. I just want to know when-”
A flash like a miniature tendril of electricity flew out of the device and zapped the fingertips on Thomas’s right hand.
“Ow!” he yelled, recoiling from the sudden jolt.
You have been electrocuted. HP -10.
“You won’t get another warning shot,” said Fizzy, still keeping the device trained on him.
The thing in her arms started making a seriously worrying noise and the light show became even more intense.
“Out,” she repeated. “Now!”
“Okay! Okay! I’m going!”
Fizzy kept pointing the weapon at the door for several seconds to make sure that the nosy bastard had indeed gone away. She flipped the little lever on the side, changing its setting from ‘stun’ to ‘shock’ and finally to ‘off.’ Her Lightning Thrower spooled down and went quiet. There was also the ‘vaporize’ setting, but that might break the device. There’s no way she could allow such a thing to happen. She stared at it solemnly, almost reverently, then ran a finger across its slightly warm chassis.
“Dad…” she muttered. “Sorry about using Zapster on a worthless guy like that. I kind of lost it when that suspicious goon started asking questions about my star pupil.”
A small smile spread on her lips.
“I bet you would’ve loved meeting Boxxy. That guy is an enigma wrapped in a riddle with a side order of mystery, but I can tell he’s a man who adores machines. Not to mention he’s just as clever as any gnome. Heh, he might be cleverer than you are!”
Tears started leaking down her face.
“... than you were.”
She hugged the weapon and began sobbing quietly.
“I miss you and Lark so much. *Sniffle* Why? Why did you have to go off on that stupid trip? Why did you have to listen to some shady merchant’s promises?! *Sniffle* Idiot! So what if the store is struggling?! *Huck huck* You’re far more important than some stupid human and his money! *Huck huck* Moron! *Huck* Blockhead! *Huck* Stupid!”
Rory Fizzlesprocket was a Level 70 Arclight Artificer. He and his son, Lark, had left to visit the city of Monotal three weeks ago, aboard a merchant’s private caravan.
The same caravan that had been reported to be wiped out on the outskirts of the former city.
“Why did you have to leave me alone?”
Cornie wept while hugging the last memento of her dearly departed father and brother. It was hardly the best use for a delicate piece of machinery, but what choice did she have? Those worthless humans couldn’t even bring her a body to mourn.