Chapter 5 - Heating up
Back in ClearPebble, Jomiko had gathered the rest of the group so they could all hear what the general goods merchant, Jin, had to say. Midori and Jomiko knew each other, having partnered up for quests in the past. They didn’t really trust each other in dangerous situations, for different reasons. Jomiko was liable to not run away from a clearly losing fight while Midori was quite the opposite.
The bull lan was exactly the patron of Jomiko and Arata’s faux quest, and failing to catch up to him, they had instead returned to the store so they could get information out of Jin.
“We had business together, that’s all, I don’t know anything about him.”
“What kind of business?” Jomiko asked, her eyes glaring suspiciously. The man wasn’t the least bit intimidated, however.
“The kind that don’t concern you, missy.”
“Missy?!” She slapped the counter.
“He has cheated us gravely, sir,” Kazuki interjected while Arata and Pixa were talking to each other, making fun of some of the merchandise. Midori was next to Jomiko, to plead with Jin should he be difficult. “We just want to know where he went.”
“And if he had money with him,” Arata added, passively, from behind. “That’s useful too, haha, check this out, Pixa!”
“Well, I don’t care about that, my duty’s only towards the transaction we made. He’s headed to Fairgrifen, and yes, he has plenty of money with him.”
“You’re sure?” Jomiko questioned.
“As sure as the clouds are that they really don’t like the scenery here,” he nodded.
“Alright,” Jomiko grinned contently, looking around, “he does need money to get into Fairgrifen. Good money.”
“So do we,” Midori pointed out. She had made Jomiko allow her to join them, in exchange for her help. Her share of the money, even if not equal, would be enough to make her compound twice over.
“So what should we do?” Arata asked, as they walked past him and Pixa, “we’re pretty much broke.”
Midori said her goodbyes to Jin while Jomiko complained to Arata, “and whose fault is that?”
“Hey, you wanted to do the job as much as the rest of us,” Arata shrugged off the guilt.
“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it,” she accused him.
“I might have an idea,” Kazuki told them once they were outside, “Pixa will get us in.”
Pixa opened her eyes, startled. She pointed at herself.
“Ha ha!” Arata laughed, “you’re a mad genius, Kazuki. That’s why we love you,” he snuggled Kazuki, who was quick to shove him off.
The plan was sound. They approached Fairgrifen – well it really took two days to really be close enough to warrant the word “approach” but anyway - once at its gate, they carefully observed the group of people that were trying to get in, or that had already failed and were camping waiting for the night to travel back.
It was better to travel at night in the desert.
There was a big line, at least, hundred worth, and if they looked around, they would see many silhouettes along the horizon, from all kinds of directions, all either moving towards or away, from that gate.
They got in line normally, Kazuki looking around, attentive.
“There,” he whispered to Pixa, “to your right, making a sand angel.”
Pixa saw the child: she was a reptilian Lan, with three finger hands and feet, her feet scaled, and she had a thick tail which was making it hard for her to do her angel in the sand. She looked to be around six.
“I don’t feel right about this…” Pixa complained, timidly.
“You won’t be doing any harm,” Kazuki pointed out.
“Do it when we’re near the gate,” Midori added, walking behind her, “and don’t worry, she’ll be fine.”
She still felt conflicted. Jomiko, which was ahead of them, followed closely by Arata, Kazuki, Pixa and Midori, just kept pacing forward as people were either let in or sent back.
When Jomiko was one person short of dealing with the guard, Pixa concentrated, looking at the little girl. She took a deep breath and opened her hand. She opened, she closed, she trembled and then suddenly froze it fixed, taking control of the child.
Done. The mind of a child was easy to influence. Still feeling dirty about it, she moved her hand. And within seconds, despite the fact there was no pain, the child was screaming, terrified.
“Ahhh, mom! MOOOOM! I can’t, agh, what’s going on?!”
The guards looked to the side, alerted. There were four of them at each side of the gate. The actual gate was big enough for a small army to go through, half as tall as the wall, but it had a small door through which people could flow in and out, and that was only wide enough for two, shoulder to shoulder.
All of them were rendered alert, two of them looking around. But Midori and Kazuki smothered Pixa, stepping a bit towards the child with curiosity and concern, and successfully blocking any view of her hand. Just in case, the guards had that kind of foresight.
The child span in the ground, then twisted to stand up, and then started running.
“Nooo! Somebody stop me! Please!”
The parents lost their minds and started screaming. The crowd reacted, concerned civilians getting up to help. Some pierced the line, shoving and forcing their way through, others yelled out at the guards to help. Confusion set and spread until all of a sudden there was only one guard watching the gate properly.
A guard that was found unconscious once the child had been subdued, magically returning to normal it seemed.
The ability to puppeteer a body was considered by Pixa to be the worst thing she ever learned. Sometimes she questioned whether it wouldn't have been better to suffer the consequences of not knowing it. Most times, she just tried not to think about it.
Meanwhile, Sanpu and Fuun’na were waiting outside a grocery store, eyed by two uncomfortable guards who were disguised as beggars. They were covered in dark rags, hiding supposedly wounded faces and bodies, holding a bowl with one hand, where people could dump their coin if they felt sorry for them. They were leaning against the wall as if hurting.
But they were eyeing the two nervously as the twins traded affection, whispering in each other’s ears, giggling lightly, eyeing the two as if they were mocking them. Which they were.
Eventually, though, their turn to have a meeting arrived.
They saw an old bull Lan leaving. He pulled a hood over his face, one with holes made for his horns, and eyed them but briefly before dismissing them. They watched him walk away while one of the beggars raised his voice.
“Feel free to come in, she’s no longer busy.”
They lightly laughed, nodding, and went in. Inside was actually as small as it looked from the outside. It looked just like any other grocery store, full of baskets and counters and stands and cabinets and shelves with all kinds of produce and ingredients. A homely woman sat behind the main counter, at an elevated height.
She was fat, with big bosoms and a motherly smile, clearly a Fea, though, a rare sight in that city. She had grey hair but looked pretty healthy and young besides that.
Other shopkeepers seemed to be there, along with other clients too. The shopkeepers were two, one at each side, and the clients seemed to be browsing. Though if so, they would have been browsing for the better part of an hour by then.
Sanpu wouldn’t be surprised if there were more of them on the second floor and that was if the people walking the very street weren’t also theirs, just going around in circles.
“Welcome,” the woman bid them, “you would be the blood twins?”
They looked at each other. They knew they should be intimidated by her knowing their last names but it just amused them.
They giggled, replying “yeah,” and approached the woman. This time, they were armed; Fuun’na had her bow, quiver, and a single-bladed axe. Sanpu had a dagger in a sheath, right of his waist, and a double-bladed axe strapped to his back by a thin cord tied over his right shoulder.
“How old are you?”
“Good question,” Sanpu pointed out, “how old are we, sister? You know I don’t keep up with that stuff.”
“We’re thirteen,” she poked his cheek, “coming up on fourteen, though. I think a month?”
“Haha, let’s make sure we get that far, hm?”
The woman smiled a heart-warming smile.“Nothing would make me happier.”
“So you’re the guild boss?”
She smiled, all knowing.
“I’m aware you were hired to kill me by appointed minister Lorelai.”
“Yep. Two thousand, he offered us,” Sanpu told her, turning his back to her to lean on the counter, using both his elbows to get comfortable. Fuun’na cutely rested her head on her right hand, an elbow rested on that same counter.
That way, Sanpu could check the rest of the room while Fuun’na stayed focused and close to the woman.
“Will you pay us more not to do it?” He asked.
“Of course. I’ll easily match that price though I’d more willingly have you dedicated to our cause on principle alone. Or at least mostly,” she jested, kindly.
“What cause? You?” Fuun’na jested, accusingly eyeing her while nibbling at a nail.
“Of course not,” the woman complained, “of a freer Fairgrifen. The Aristocrats have gotten old and stale, and they rule with merciless greed. We need new leadership.”
“Yours?” Fuun’na asked again, and Sanpu formed a smirk. The woman sighed, patient.
“They force the people of Fairgrifen to endure ridiculous taxes. You need to be half rich just to enter this city. And all that money goes nowhere but their pockets.”
“So you steal it to fill your pockets,” Fuun’na stated, amused, and, this time, the woman shook her head, breathing out in exasperation.
“Whatever,” Sanpu shrugged, observing the two shopkeepers and the three still browsing the food. “Just show yourself already, I don’t wanna talk to your secretary...”
“I dunno who you think you are, child, but this attitude just won’t do,” the woman replied.
The second after that, Fuun’na swiped her axe out of her back, stopping it a hair’s length from the woman’s neck. Everyone shivered, two even stepped in their direction but it was too fast. Fuun’na still had her head rested on her right hand, she had not moved an inch there, and still she looked amused.
“You know the thing about adventurers?” Sanpu asked as the two outer guards came inside. He pushed his back off the counter, standing straight while grabbing the hilt of his axe. “We’ve seen all kinds.”
“And I mean all kinds,” he added, looking straight at the shopkeeper on his left. He was a gruff-looking Jun with tanned skin, a scar over his left eye, a tattoo on his neck and putting on quite an act to look like just another soldier but the look he gave Sanpu right then betrayed his true nature.
At least, Lorelai had gotten his face right. “And the thing that really upsets my sister and me? Dishonesty.”
He walked towards the man, taking out his axe, clumsily dragging it across the floor with just one hand. Everyone else immediately drew their weapons, mostly short swords and daggers which, in their defence, were the better weapons to use inside a closed space such as that store.
The other shopkeeper took a crossbow out but the boss did nothing but try to stare Sanpu down.
It was very hard to scare the twins, however. It’s hard to scare Marauders in general, they get stronger the more hurt they get, and that means they are very used to pain. And very used to facing death.
“See, a criminal will do the crime and lie about it so the law thinks he’s innocent. That’s fine, that’s cool, good for him. Everyone does what they can in this wild world, right, sis?”
“That’s right,” she playfully said, making a bit of blood stream out of the woman’s neck. Her attitude had dropped as fast as her hands were raised. She whimpered, scared.
“Dishonesty is when you pretend to be someone you’re not. Dishonesty is having people thinking they’re dying for something greater when they’re just dying for just another scumbag with enough coin to afford the risk.” He slapped the counter with his axe.
“I don’t care what you think,” the boss replied with cold dead eyes, and not the least bit afraid. He didn’t even flinch when the axe hit the table. “I’ll pay you double if you just walk away. Leave my city.”
Sanpu laughed, a fraction of an imperceptible instant sooner than Fuun’na. He pulled his axe to lean it on his shoulder.
It was crazy, they were just kids, and yet it seemed like death was just a game to them.
A fun game.
“You know, you all look at us mercenaries like we’re infinitely greedy. We fight for money, yeah, that’s true. We die for money? Yeah, that’s also true. But pff, better for money than for somebody else’s dream,” he shrugged as his sister nodded a “damn right.”
“But we don’t live for money, no,” Sanpu shook his head in disappointment. “We don’t live for anything but ourselves. We’re free to enjoy ourselves and we do that by doing whatever we feel like, and most of all… we’re free to choose when the pay is just way more than we can use…”
The boss stared back at him, understanding what he meant. They were greedy, true, and that could get them to backstab their employers. But the greed wasn’t unquenchable. He had thought they were all about the money when they were simply partial to it enough that they accepted his first pay off.
He had made a grave mistake in judgement…
“But death will come, and when it comes to us, well… I hope it’ll come in the same way it’s come for you,” he eyed him with sort of a hungry and proud look.
The boss opened his eyes in shock, seeing Sanpu finally joining his second hand to his axe, gripping tight, clear in his intent.
“KI-KILL THEM! KILL THEM BOTH!!!” He yelled, but it was too late. All bluffs had failed, all offers had failed and he spent what little time he had left yelling orders he found he didn’t really care that much about, not while the blade was falling fast upon him.
He wished he had spent those last few seconds doing something more productive. Like dodging.