Book 2, Chapter 9 - Conspirators

The sky had not yet darkened to night but Adder’s bar was already busy. There were borderland merchants, adventurers, heathens, believers of all sorts and more eating and drinking together. The air was choked with the smell of booze and tobacco.

A dancer twisted and swayed at one end of the common room while large men pummeled each other in the boxing ring on the other side. The whole bar was a sea of testosterone with yelling, cheering and cursing that shook the ceiling timbers.

It was certainly a rowdy place, but there were clear limits to the debauchery that was allowed. 

An older man entered the bar. He was tall and lean, and a spindly goatee sprouted from his chin. His clothes were simple but surprisingly well kept. He looked like an old scholar, presentable beneath the large hat perched atop his head and covered the majority of his face.

“Sir, we have your reservation ready.”

A server approached to offer assistance. He was young and his long hair was tied back in a simple ponytail. A pair of bright eyes shone with youthful vitality.

The old man nodded, though his eyes never ceased scanning his surroundings. They stopped for just a moment when he spied Adder behind the bar. The bar owner raised his head at the same moment, and for a brief second their gaze met. Then they each looked away as though they’d seen nothing. 

The young server brought the man to a private room by a window before pouring him a glass of silvery wine followed by plates of food. This sort of fare was a delicacy here, but the man with the goatee seemed disinterested.

“I will not disturb you during dinner, sir.”

The old man picked the hat off his head and placed it upon the chair beside him, allowing his flowing white hair to fall freely. He didn’t look exceptionally old but the blade of time had carved marks in his face. The valleys were vestiges of bitter times and his eyes were sharp and unwelcoming. Inside there was anger, pain, expectation, as well as morbid insanity mixed with restlessness.

Even his presence was uncomfortable. Calm as the surface of a lake, but in a caldera that could erupt at any moment. 

About an hour later a tall man with a hooked, beak-like nose entered the bar. He looked around with beady eyes then slipped the server a scrap of paper with a number on it. The young man, without saying a word, led the newcomer to the indicated room.

While they traversed the common area, the bird-like man seemed to move both slow and fast. If one were to look closely his every step seemed calculated and precise. Especially as he threaded his way through the crowd he never touched a stool or one of the other patrons. Slippery as a phantom he quickly flit by, leaving no trace of his passage.

Without a question, this was a man of skill.

The young man stopped before a door and pushed it open.

When the bald man with his aquiline nose appeared before the goateed stranger his eyes glimmered with anticipation. He rose to his feet and addressed his guest with great respect. “Boss Buzzard!”

The one called Buzzard sized up the other one. “It’s been a while, old friend. You’ve aged quickly.”

“It’s the curse of humans that we should grow old. It’s nothing to fear. What we should loathe is growing old but accomplishing nothing.” He punctuated the thought with a bitter sniff then waved the young man away. “Leave us.”

The server glanced at the middle-aged man with the hooked nose, back at the man with the goatee, then bowed to each. He left and closed the door behind him, leaving the two men alone.

Buzzard sighed once they had the room to themselves. “You shouldn’t keep this up. You aren’t in the best health, come back with me. Over the last twenty-odd years you’ve contributed much. Enough. You don’t need to spend all the rest of your time and energy here, you need a life of your own.”

“Life? My life had already been ruined.” The man with the goatee shook his head. “The only desire I have left is to see Skycloud City in flames. If I can one day feel the warmth of those fires on my face then any price will be worth it. A few decades in exile would mean nothing if that was my reward.”

Suddenly Buzzard lifted a hand, entreating silence.

He rose and pushed open the door, his eyes darting left and right. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, just the ponytailed server walking down the hall. He sighed.

“Relax, Buzzard. No one will eavesdrop on us here.” The older man stood as well. He understood the need for caution. “The owner of this place is more than he seems. Without his help I wouldn’t be here to collect this intelligence.”

“The bar owner? Can he be trusted?”

“It’s hard to say, but I think so. He doesn’t stand with Skycloud, they would kill him ten times over if they knew the things he’d done or the treasures he hides. It’s the same for helping me with this.”

“I trust your judgment.” Buzzard nodded. “Do you have it?”

The older man produced a black bound book from his clothes and handed it to his companion. “Everything is in here; troop counts and locations, and the names of all their captains. There are more than one thousand five hundred middle- to low-ranking officers on that list, as well as their backgrounds.”

“Hard to get one’s hands on, certainly!” Buzzard took the notebook from him as though handling a priceless treasure then began to leaf through its contents. “With this we can formulate a plan for infiltrating Skycloud. You’ve done us a great service.”

The older man’s response was forlorn. “It cost years and the lives of thirty companions to get this information. It was their noble sacrifice that built this foundation. I hope it serves its purpose, that wretched place must be razed to the ground.”

Buzzard looked through a few more pages. Although he was only scanning the entries he could tell it was both true and accurate. It must have taken years of struggle and dedication for the old man to get all this together, unfathomable sacrifice. His mission had not been an easy one.

“Don’t be stubborn. Come back with me!”

“Everyone has their own battles to fight, and I’m not backing down from the front lines ‘till this one is finished. So long as I’m needed, I’m not going anywhere. I’m sure you understand.” The old man was steadfast. “But since you’re here I do have a few young soldiers to recommend. A few good lads I’ve dug up and kept close over the years. With the right training they’ll be of excellent use to us.”

Buzzard sighed once again. He knew the old man’s temperament.

He wasn’t going to come, but his recommendations were welcomed. Buzzard trusted his friend’s judgment, and anyone he offered would be reliable.

“It’s about time.” The old man fished a pocket watch out of his clothes and took a glance. “Come with me.”

The young man with the ponytail was wandering aimlessly around the bar, bored stiff, when suddenly he spied the man with the goatee and his companion quickly leave. After a brief tremor he dropped what he was holding and hurried after them.

The old man had planned this down to the minute. It was the busiest time for the streets of Sandbar Outpost, and the crowds were fierce. When he and the middle-aged man joined the fray they instantly vanished. The young server tried to keep up but stopped when he reached a crossroads. Several streets and alleyways slithered before him like a spider web. He had no idea which one his targets had taken.

***

Several minutes later, in an abandoned warehouse.

Dust and the stink of mold permeated the air. The light of a candle struggled against the breeze. Its frail light flickered against the darkness, and like the old man it just hoped to fill the world with a little light and warmth before it burnt out.

“These are the young men I was talking with you about.”

There were six people standing before the man with the goatee. The youngest of them was about twenty, and the oldest no more than forty.

“I’ve hid them here. They’ve helped me gather the information we have for the last decade or so. The product of constantly looking for talent. Every one of them has followed me through the fire and they all have unique skills. Whether you train them as spies or frontline fighters they will be your most trustworthy soldiers. I can guarantee that with my life.”

Buzzard nodded. “I’ll make sure to pass your personal recommendation on to Wolfblade.” [1]

“Wait! If we leave what about you?” One of the men with a large black sword on his back spoke up. “I’m with you. Wherever you go I’m going as well.”

“And me!”

“Same!”

Buzzard was moved by their loyalty. Most members of an independent Dark Atom cell dreamed of joining the main group. That was especially true for borderland spies like them. It was a promise that they could move somewhere without worry for food or clothing, where they would be taken care of. Who wanted to live like this? Like rats in a sewer?

Yet these men were willing to give up that opportunity to stay with the old man who led them.

“Death will come for us all one day, but faith is indestructible.” The old man answered them with a pleasant smile. He picked up the dying candles and used them to light others, spreading the light farther. “So long as we pass on the flame of our convictions, one day it will be a wildfire. What regrets would I have in death? Do not forget our goal!”

The six men looked at one another.

Buzzard interjected, curious at their reaction. “You have other goals?”

The old man nodded matter-of-factly. “There’s an inconspicuous chink in Skycloud City’s proverbial armor. Give me a little time, so long as that opening remains we can use it to administer a poison that would kill tens of thousands of city residents. It will be a catastrophe the likes of which the holy city would not recover from.”

As the plan slipped from the old man’s lips his face turned monstrous and eerie. 

Buzzard had never seen hatred at this level. This man’s solitary purpose in life was to see the downfall of the holy city. But it was an interesting plan, and he opened his mouth to inquire further when –

Ding, ding!

The sound of a small bell softly flitted through the air. Clear and melodious, it stabbed at their ears like a poison dart.

“Shit!” One of the men by the door scowled. “Someone’s trying to sneak up on us. I think we’ve been made.”

An enormous black man hoisted an equally massive gun from his back. He began pulling bullets the size of thumbs from the bandolier around his chest and began feeding them into the firing chamber. Click! Click! He stepped forward, aimed at the door, and fired.

BANG!

A shocking boom tore through the area, the warehouse door was blown to pieces.

With a cry of shock and pain the bullet hit someone on the other side and sent them flying. At the caliber this large man was using it didn’t matter that the bullet first passed through the door. Whoever he hit was dead.

“Fuck!” The old man shouted. “Buzzard, get out of here now!”

“But you-“

“Now isn’t the time!” He shook his head, cutting the other man off. “Think about what that notebook is worth. You need to get it to Wolfblade, no matter what. Otherwise all our effort is wasted! Now shut up and go!

But even before his words could sink in the intruders were reacting. Suddenly the whole building roared like a hurricane had descended upon them. [2] The windows rattled and the wooden walls clacked as suddenly a hail of arrows fell.

“Find cover!”

Buzzard kicked over a table and hid behind it, just in time to see the deadly heads of seven or eight bolts poke through the wood. The others scrambled for protection, but one of the younger men was too slow and a crossbow bolt caught him in the eye. He was alive long enough to scream and then crumbled to the floor lifeless.


1. The name should be familiar. It’s the name of the Dark Atom’s leader.

2. For those who have never experienced a hurricane, here’s what they sound like. Headphone users beware. Missing is the deep groaning rumble that underlies this. Almost everyone describes a hurricane passing over their house like being run over by a train.

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