22. Uninvited guests
19th of Lamashtan – Fireday – 28th day in South-Western Varisia
Magnimar, Kaijitsu Manor
I woke to the first light of a new day, the tome in my lap. I realized that I had fallen asleep while reading to Ilori. Eyes closed, expression neutral and hands at her lap, she was still resting on her bed peacefully. No, I corrected myself, she was somewhere else, and all that remained was her broken yet still beautiful physical form. I closed the book, got up and left.
As I got downstairs, Harsk was already gone, but he had left us, or me, a note he was going to the temple and some breakfast at the kitchen, which I hungrily devoured. I realized I had not eaten for almost a day. I was about to drop a big piece of bacon on the floor for Faroth but then I remembered and pulled back my hand. I recalled the small pyre, the scent of the slowly rising smoke and the gathering rainclouds above me. I reached out to my bandolier and found the fangs. As I touched them I remembered falling asleep to the sound of raindrops hitting the windows. I closed my eyes and gripped the firepelt teeth in my palm, letting the emotions wash over me, letting them break against my mind like waves hitting rock.
The front door slammed open and Alfred broke my moment of contemplation by entering the house. I was at the back of the ground floor in the kitchen, but I could still hear him moan in pain. Another hangover. Another normal morning for the sellsword.
He didn’t say anything when he stepped into the kitchen but burped and slumped on a wooden stool opposite to me. His eyes were bloodshot. Gods, the smell of old liquour was thick around him. I was amazed he could fight let alone operate in such condition day in and day out. I wondered how his manhood hadn’t fallen off after fucking so many whores – who knew what diseases they carried. In a way, Alfred was just like Frank – an alchemist’s bomb, waiting to go off. At least the barbarian had been honest about his rage and suicidal tendencies, but Alfred was just destroying himself in a very slow, carefree manner.
I wondered if I was doing the same, running after a ghost, chipping parts off myself in the process, until nothing remained, not even a purpose.
As I gazed to nothingness, Alfred reached out and grabbed a large loaf of dark bread. “Do you still have the list and the letter”, I asked, coming back to this world and referring to something peculiar Alfred had found among the coins and the gemstones. After slaying the Mistress, we had stumbled upon a list of names and a letter to Xanesha from her sibling. The list, titled ‘Sihedron sacrifices’, had thirty four names, some of them crossed over, including familiar names like Benny Harker and Titus Scarnetti from Sandpoint, all Aldern’s victims, and familiar names from Magnimar, like Garnet Alexandros and Lord-Mayor Grobaras. The list even had my and Ilori’s names on the bottom. It was a list of assassination targets, with greed apparently as their common denominator. I was amused they had felt I was greedy. Quite the opposite. There was just no-one I would share the loot with open arms and without deliberation. Ilori’s words echoed in my mind. You need to trust some people, Alpharius.
“I gave them to you yesterday”, Alfred responded with a coarse voice, his throat dry, and munched the bread. I shook my head slowly. “No, I just had a look and gave it back to you.” Alfred frowned and stopped eating before tapping his pockets across his clothes. “Fuck.”
I narrowed my eyes. “That list and letter are critical if we want to prove our innocence to the Temple and the city-” I started, but Alfred slammed his palm to the table. Cutlery and cups trembled. “I know I had it. I’m sure! Gods damnit! Somebody must have taken it from me when we left Underbridge!” For some reason, I believed him outright. I had been too occupied, too haunted by regret to spot Garnet’s lackeys, the realization came quickly and I was sure where to go and look for the documents. “Let’s go to the bazaar”, I told the sellsword.
At the marketplace by the docks I spotted Garnet from afar and didn’t like what I saw. A pale-faced, lithe young woman in her early twenties, wearing a dark leather vest and breeches, was frantically discussing with her, and she didn’t seem happy. As she saw me and Alfred approach, she seemed to get even more tense. The other woman retreated and vanished behind the counters and market booths.
“Hey, you”, Garnet started and pointed me accusingly. “I am Alpharius”, I informed her matter-of-factly, realizing at the same time that I hadn’t introduced myself to her earlier. I was so bad in getting to know new people.
She waved a piece of paper in front of us. It didn’t take a bright man to realize what it was. “Care to tell me, Alpharius, why I am on a kill list of a Mistress of a rich men’s boy’s club?” I flashed a hint of a smile. “We found about that yesterday so you tell me. I’m there too.” She didn’t appreciate my humour. I realized she was quite angry, and terrified. Alfred chose to stay back. I think he didn’t want to worsen his headache by arguing with Garnet.
“I don’t find this funny, stranger! There are men and women on this list who I’ve known and who have been killed!” At that I frowned and crossed my arms. “So what? It’s not like you’re an innocent little girl, I’m willing to bet you have a lot of enemies in Magnimar.” She stepped closer to me and gazed up to my eyes keenly. I really couldn’t give a shit but I didn’t break the stare. “So you don’t care that there’s a group of powerful people after your life”, she asked, trying to make a point. I just laughed without any mirth. “Poor girl, I already have powerful people after me. This changes nothing.” She was taken aback. “What, so you’ll just go on pretending nothing happened, and won’t investigate who’s behind all this?” A momentary flash of anger, but I hid it well. Something happened. We lost Ilori. I lost my animal companion. But she didn’t know of our losses, of course. How could she?
“Of course we’ll investigate.” I sighed and went on. “We lost Ilori yesterday, fighting that mistress, retrieving those pieces of paper you hold. We’d need them back”, I said, feeling like I was carrying a mountain on my back. I pointed at the documents. I didn’t see any point in accusing her of theft in the first place. Hearing me, her expression softened, loosened a bit.
“The red beauty? I’m sorry for your loss”, she uttered her condolences but I couldn’t say if she was being sincere. “But you must then realize the importance of seeking this sibling of Xanesha”, she explained, briefly checking the letter she got the name right, “and make sure others will not suffer and perish at their hands.” You mean you won’t suffer and perish, I thought, but didn’t say it aloud. “And surely you wish to avenge her death”, she added as a final note. Avenge the carmine lady? I hadn’t thought about it, but she was right. I wanted it. I wanted to make the bastards suffer for what they had done to her and Faroth. Powerful emotion surged through me but I held it in check, almost. I realized I was clenching my fists, and released them.
“Point taken”, I admitted to the blond swindler. She nodded. “Then you won’t mind if someone I know tags along with you in your investigations, to make sure the threat is eliminated swiftly.” My brows rose in surprise. What insolence! “First of all-” I started, but she wasn’t listening but rather blew a loud whistle. The same pale-faced, dark-haired woman she had been talking to earlier appeared and walked to us confidently. Alfred guffawed, his input to the discussion having been nonexistent that far – and chose to continue to stay back, perhaps thinking I had more say in who joined us and who didn’t, which of course was absolutely not true. We weren’t a team, a company, nothing. We were just strangers.
But I was damned if I was going to allow some outsider to force-feed a person to us – a person who we didn’t trust let alone know and whose only reference was a known swindler and a troublemaker. “This is Alice, an old friend of mine, a person of great abilities-” This time I cut her short. “No. Absolutely not. We’re not interested in babysitting your friend here.” Alice stepped forward, seemingly not minding my words. “I can well take care of myself, half-elf.” I quickly assessed her. Lightly built but vigorous, that big scimitar on a scabbard on her belt. Plain-looking, blue eyes, not unfriendly, pragmatically dressed and equipped. A fighter perhaps, no – too intelligent, something else. Magic wielder. And she has that fancy magical backpack like Alfred does. “Like what you are seeing?” Garnet asked sardonically.
“It doesn’t matter”, I said simply. “Even if, if, we decide to pursue Xanesha’s sibling, we’ll do it on our terms and no-one else’s.” Garnet lifter her hands. “Of course! Alice here won’t boss you around. She is just there to make sure you get the job done. She’ll be a valuable member of your group.”
The discussion wasn’t going anywhere so I changed tactics. “Why are you so intent on getting after the person behind the kill list? Like I said, you must have enemies in town already.” The blond swindler looked down. “I- I can admit I’m afraid for my life. This is something else entirely. While I can be quite sure I’m safe here at the bazaar and the Dock district, among my friends-” I cut in again. “If you’re safe here, why don’t you just hire good Alice here to protect you?” She was lost for words for a moment.
I pressed on. “Don’t bullshit us.” Garnet licked her lips as she considered her next words. “The fact is, I don’t want to have powerful enemies as much as anyone.” Whatever, I thought. “In any case, this is not up to me. We have Alfred here too, and Harsk, who have a say.” I turned to Alfred, hoping he’d be as reluctant as I was, but I was sorely disappointed. He was smiling. “Sure, why not. An extra blade in skillful hands is always welcome.” I wanted to hit him right there and then.
“Excellent”, Garnet exclaimed happily. I shook my head wearily. “No. It’s not settled. Harsk gets to decide, but he’s not here.” The swindler just shrugged. “Alice here surely can tag along until you meet up with the dwarf again”, she half-asked, half-stated. I gave them both a cold look. “No she can’t, but who am I to stop her from following us around.” Garnet laughed but I sensed the resentment and irritation beneath it. Whatever, I thought again. If I paid no attention to this Alice, maybe she’d leave us be.
An awkward silence fell. I broke it by reaching out to Garnet with my hand. “We’ll need those back”, I said, referring to Xanesha’s documents. Garnet looked at me unsurely, then at Alice, who nodded and she handed me the papers. I took them. “You’re not holding these anymore”, I said to Alfred who snorted, and folded the papers before stuffing them into my breeches’ pocket. Doing that, the tips of my fingers brushed against Faroth’s fangs. I was yet to string them with my other memorabilia, but I was reminded of a practical necessity. I required another animal companion to replace the curious, strangely coloured firepelt.
“I am looking for a new animal companion”, I started, taking the discussion to another topic. This seemed to please the swindler as she flashed another carefree smile of hers. “Of course. The bazaar has pets for sale from around Golarion. I happen to know just the place.” Of course you do. “Do you want to have a look now?” She asked. I nodded, and she led me forward past the market stands and booths. Alfred followed, as did the new girl. We walked all the way to the docks, and to a shadier part where there were a lot of inns and taverns. After taking a corner, she stopped and gesture forward to an alleyway. I looked and saw a dark-skinned man sitting hunched and feeding seeds to a red parrot who was on his shoulder. Around him, under a canopy tied to the surrounding houses, were dozens of cages of various sizes, and in each cage was an animal or a few.
I paced past Garnet and towards the man. As he noticed me approach, he stood up, took the parrot and placed it into a cage nearby. He gave me a wide smile. His golden teeth flashed in the shadow of the canopy.
“Good morning master”, he greeted, and looked past me towards Garnet. I noted a slight nod of respect. “I am animal trainer and salesman Reshi. What brings you here to my shop today?” I let my gaze wander around the cages. “I am a hunter, looking for a trusty animal companion. Preferably a large feline rather than a hound or a wolf – or something exotic”, I added as I noted a large lizard, probably a monitor, in one cage. Reshi sneered pridefully. “I have the best cat beasts in Magnimar for hunting. Come and see”, he encouraged me and gestured me to follow him. As I went, my attention was caught by a beautiful harris hawk. I recognized it by its chestnut-red shoulders and white-banded tail. Would I had the time to train it, I would’ve eagerly bought one of these pack-hunting falcons. Maybe later, I thought and continued to focus on what Reshi was saying – an empty sales pitch.
“Here is a fabulous creature, the mighty lion”, he told me and showed me a large cage. Within, a starved, diseased male lion lied. The poor thing was breathing laboriously and flies buzzed around it. “50 gold pieces for this great alpha male, a pride-leader like yourself”, Reshi went on. I looked at him like he was an idiot. “I’ll pay you five gold coins to let him out of his misery. He’s almost dead!” I offered. “What? No. He’s fine!” Either he was blind or desperate. Seeing that I wasn’t going to be fooled, he flashed a smile. “I can take the 5 gold on your offer.” Under my hood, I rolled my eyes. “What else do you have?”
He took me deeper into his shop between buildings. He had a few firepelts, but they were vicious, scrawny and unfit. Then I saw him.
It was like an instant recognition of an old friend, just like with Faroth at the woods. A black leopard, a panther, was stalking in circles in its small cage. It was a male, almost full-grown. Handsome, tense and only muscle and no slack. And it was furious. As Reshi walked past its cage, it roared and trashed, and tried to claw at him through the bars. He hated Reshi. Reshi cursed him and took a stick of wood and rattled its cage and hit him on the paws. The panther retreated a few paces but showed its fangs at the beastmaster. “That one needs some discipline”, Reshi muttered and slammed the cage once more for emphasis. It was obvious to me that Reshi was a trainer who used force and pain as his only methods. And I could spot the tell-tale signs of disciplinary action on the panther’s fur. He was a slave in training. And after that realization, for a second, I was somewhere else entirely.
Training hall. Blood and sweat drip on the marble floors, making them slick. “Stay down, boy!” A slave-master, a whip in his hand, shouts at the jet-black haired youngster. The whip cracks against his back and the boy screams in pain. There are six bloody marks on his back. Another whip. Seven marks. Light shines through the windows onto the boy’s face and it blinds him. He’s crouched, driven to his knees, wearing nothing but breeches .”Insolent bastard! I’ll teach you to strike you masters!” The man with the whip yells in rage. The boy lifts his chin, sweat and tears of pain fall down his cheeks and nose. He sees the other man lying in a pool of blood, a gladius in his throat. Through the agony, the boy grins.
I made eye contact with the panther. His expression became neutral in a heartbeat and he regarded me with his large yellow cat’s eyes. I stepped closer, and I was next to his cage. “Watch out, that bastard likes no-one”, Reshi warned me but I gestured him to shut up without looking away. I felt Reshi’s gaze, and Garnet’s and Alfred’s too on my back. I pushed my hand through the bars towards the panther. Hello, fellow slave. Do you want your freedom?
The panther turned its head to the side first, then lowered it, before looking back at me from under the corners of his eyes. I could feel his breath on my extended hand. It was only a feet or two from him. Such wrath. Such power. I am a sullen, silent creature. Become my avatar of fury. I held eye contact. “Crazy fool..” Reshi was muttering behind me, but I ignored him. Finally, the panther took a step towards me. Then another. He brought his head close to my hand, sniffed it and finally licked my fingertips. I realized what connected me, Faroth and this beast. It was about being down-trodden and hurt by others. Faroth by his pack – by other, normal firepelts. The panther by his beastmaster. I by my slavemaster. I scratched its head and gently brushed its fur. The black leopard let out a low growl – a purr. You are a shadow from the shadows. I name you Dûath.
“How much?” I asked Reshi after I snapped out of the trance and slowly pulled my hand out of the cage. “On- I mean two hundred fifty gold pieces”, Reshi answered, his mouth agape. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing but the sleazy bastard had the sense to push the prices up. I frowned at the ridiculously high price but then I had an inspiration. I called Garnet to come over.
“Alexandros”, I started by using her surname, “I have a suggestion.” She nodded me to go on. “I’m quite interested in this panther, but Reshi’s price is quite high. If you pay him, I’ll agree to take Alice with us.” The swindler opened her mouth so say something but then closed it and just thought about it for a moment. Reshi was looking nervous, glancing back and forth from me to Garnet. Finally she yielded and nodded. “Fine, I’ll pay for your animal, and you, Alfred and Harsk take Alice with you. No problems, no games.” I laughed lightly. Yeah right. I could agree on the girl coming with us, but I wouldn’t have to like it. “Deal”, I promised her.
Reshi remained back behind the protection of the cage door when he let Dûath out. The panther had a collar around his neck, but Reshi tossed me a thick leash to connect to the collar. I caught it in mid-air and threw it back. “I won’t be needing this.” He looked at me like I had gone totally mad. I just grinned at him.
Dûath remained firmly by my side as we left the bazaar. His behaviour had changed dramatically, and he sniffed and regarded the world with curiosity, but I could sense the burning fury within him. The desire to lash out against his wrong-doers.
I was still being hunted. Had killing Horryn been too little? Should I return to Canorate to finish the entire family, for what they did to us? For what they did to my brother?
Instinctively I shook my head to clear my mind. We had just met but my connection with the beast was already strong. It was not subtle like the connection I had had with Faroth. This was direct, and taxing. I needed to take control. We were partners, but I was in charge. Focus, Alpharius, I thought to myself.
We decided to stop by the Pathfinder Society to see how Cid Raines was doing with the translation of Ironbriar’s journal. He had make little progress. The absentminded scholar told us about how the language was a fusion of three different languages that only educated minds could understand, and how the author had had a secret affair years ago that had borne a son. Tsuto Kaijitsu, I realized. Ironbriar had been his true father. That explained many things, I considered.
I bought a simple map of Varisia while we were there – we’d need to understand the geography of the area to locate our next destinations – Turtleback Ferry and Fort Rannick – that were mentioned in the letter to Xanesha. I pinpointed them in the map, and realized that the journey there would take some time – a week or so by river boat, or two weeks via land. The land route quickly became intriguing to me as it offered a way to visit a number of small towns – and look for clues about Macharius.
At the Summit we also found a jewellery and sold our massive diamond. Or rather, I had it cut to two smaller diamonds while Alfred took his share as platinum. I wanted an insurance in case I lost my life, and believed Harsk would like one too, while Alfred wanted to buy new equipment. While he and Alice left to the Mage Tower at the Shore, I excused myself and headed out to a different direction with Dûath.
From the city map I had learned that Magnimar boasted a large hippodrome, called Serpent’s Run, the largest building in the city. Stadiums and arenas like Serpent’s Run typically showcased gladiatorial and other fighting games.
I wanted to see if they had any, or just races. I wanted to concentrate on something else entirely than the dark thoughts that were clouding my mind.
The hippodrome was close-by in the affluent Marble District that neighbored Alabaster District at the Summit. I quickly traversed the streets and located the place from afar. Even from the outside, it was a spectacular sight. A long promenade led from the main street to its entrance, and the promenade was divided lengthwise by a beautiful fountain. The entrance itself was a massive triumphal arc, and a score of statues and portraits cut into the stoneworks covered its sides. There were illustrations of races and fights as well, finely painted into the stones, depicting past games and heroes, and their victories. I was intrigued, and awed.
It was a Fireday afternoon, and already there was an event going on within the hippodrome.To the entrance I could hear the oohs and aahs of the thousand-strong crowd, the clapping, whistles and hoots, the rhythmic stomping of feet against stand floors. I couldn’t help but smile. I hated my years as a slave, as an owned hunter. I despised Canorate and its pampered, cruel elite. But I still loved the games and the fights. And I knew my brother did too.
People were entering the arena in two streams. Without asking I could see how people decided which stream to follow – the other had the poor, the other the rich and their entourages. I first decided to go in through the poor people’s side, but quickly learned that their stands were abysmal and offered little chances of actually seeing what happened. Ten gold coins exchanged hands and I was in through the doors for the rich folk. People barely registered Dûath who silently and loyally followed by my side.
I found an empty seat next to a older couple and sat down, while Dûath lied down at my feet. I had arrived just in time to witness a bull fight. Dozens of fierce, bloodied bulls stampeded across the field and among them three fighters competed, each trying to kill more bulls than the other two. My heart skipped a beat when I spotted the first of the competitors – a large, muscular man with white hair sporting a greatsword, but then he turned and I saw his blood-soaked face. My shoulders sagged noticeably. He was not my brother. His sword, as bloody as his face, cleaved bulls into bits in a hurricane of wrath. I could see he was raging, and I was reminded of Frank. Maybe the barbarian had gone to fight in the arenas as well?
An elf danced in the arena, two rapiers in his hands. He was like water as he seemed to flow past the running bulls, gracefully striking killing blows here and there, and remaining completely unharmed in the process. His fighting style was as close to an art as I had ever seen. I had a hard time spotting the third competitor. He was a gnome or a halfling – I couldn’t be certain – and he kept ducking and rolling, using his miniscule size to his advantage. Every time a bull seemed to pummel or overrun him, he evaded, typically between its legs, and slashed open its belly with razor-sharp knives.
The crowd was ecstatic and lusting for blood. I had never been too interested or happy about the rampant slaughter of wild animals in games, so I quickly bored and left my seat to scout the arena. My intention was to have a look if there was any sign of my brother, or if I could apply into a fight myself. There was always good money for good fighters in games, and the size and scope of the Serpent’s Run promised great rewards indeed.
I tried to slip into the sub-levels of the hippodrome but my efforts were thwarted. While I wasn’t really trying that much (just being interested), security was high and I was soon stopped by a duo of guards. While I heard nothing of an silver-haired, young half-elf fighter, I managed to hear that the director of the gladiatorial games was overseeing training and weeding of fighters every morning at the arena and he would be the person I would need to talk with should I want to participate. Satisfied with what I had found out, I left the hippodrome.
While I was gone on my own business, Alice had led Alfred to the Mage Tower. From what I’d heard the place was a combined school of magic and magical weapon armory located at the center of the Shore. He was buzzing with excitement – he had ordered a brand new mithral heavy armor to replace his old, common steel armor. My interest was piqued and I started to think about utilizing magical weaponry and armor too. I had never really put any faith on them, but my time in Varisia was quickly changing my attitude. Magic seemed to have its place.
Surprisingly, Alice showed some initiative and general usefulness by reminding us about Lord Mayor Grobaras – the de-facto head of government in Magnimar – and how he had been one of the targets in the Seven’s list. She knew also that Grobaras was personally invested in Fort Rannick, the fortress mentioned in the letter to Xanesha as an ultimate target of her sibling. Though Harsk was still at the cathedral, we decided to try to get a meeting with the Lord Mayor anyhow without our more pleasant party member. Alice, most familiar with the streets, took us to his compound.
His luxurious, magnificent mansion was deep within the Capital District. The mansion itself was surrounded by extravagant parks and I noted that security was lax – we got to all the way to the main entrance unchallenged. A slight hint of an immediate threat to Grobaras’ life got us past the guards, and we were in, waiting for him at a large atrium.
After a short while, a middle-aged man in fancy clothing, with finely trimmed, grey hair and beard made an entrance at a level above us and pompously strolled to the top of a staircase. He addressed us there, a good thirty feet away, while six guardsmen took firm if unthreatening positions around us. Looking at us up his nose, he made sure he had little time for games and asked what kind of information we had. I shortly told him of the Brotherhood of Seven, described very economically how we had taken possession of a kill list and sent it up to him via a servant.
He took the document from the servant, had a quick look, and fainted on the spot. The lucky man did not fall the steps.