Amber arrows ambushed me awake and speared me with a spasm of sadistic sharp stabbing pain. The world around me was at once a quiet calm blur of bland background, and yet my insides were a deep resonating drum of pounding pandemonium. And while I had tasted the captured and glorious nature of light itself now a thick ball of dirt seemed to be holding my mouth hostage.
The sore strain of an aching back was one of the first feelings my body managed to process and be able to make any sense of. With it came the revelation that I was seated in the remains of some ruined collection of wood that may or may not have been a chair at some point. Everything was coming to me in a slow crawl, and it took forever it felt like before I could even make myself move to stand up.
Getting my feet beneath me was the next huge hurtle, one that proved to predict its own inherent impending dangers. It spurred my head into a dizzying spiral and made me question the natural orders newfound allegiance against me and my ability to balance. After only allowing the floor to assume a fleeting victory over me graciously for three times, I discovered it satisfactorily appeased.
Howlers Hall was in a rough state as my vision fought to take everything in and find anything it could relay to my mind that might provide an anchor. Only one or two other limp forms looked to be lying around as well and providing some comfort was the absence of blood stains or abundance of broken furniture.
What had happened here last night? I tried to summon up some image, any recollection of the events after I had returned but only a harsh headache heralded the missing moments. Now, in hindsight, it was perhaps not the best choice to have had a drink after already having so much on my mind. Much less… How many drinks had I even had? By the way my body was expressing its ire towards me I had to assume it was markedly more than remotely reasonable.
Attempting to impose some structure or stability I reverted to an old reflex, a byproduct of the relentless training I had received in my youth. Beneath my left hand was the reassuring presence of my sword, still sheathed high and tight on my hip. My trusty dagger was still in its rightful place, I was fully dressed (thankfully) – not even the pouch containing my coin was absent.
I had just opened my eyes amidst the aftermath of spending an entire night in Howlers Hall. A sobering thought that sent a shockwave down my arm and ended in an immediate review of my financial resources. The feeling of being blasted by a sudden bucket of cold water washed over me, taking with it any attention towards my current condition.
Settled solemnly within the small sack were only ten pieces of shaped steel. I had ten Steel Shields left me, barely enough to square my debts and last me little more than a week. How could I have spent the other fifteen Shields, much less an entire Sigil in one night? I mean, I felt pretty terrible, but I doubt I could still be breathing let alone upright if I had allowed that much money to pass through my fingers in a single night.
While I stood in stunned silence, Baylen’s friendly face appeared from his store room with a new chair in hand. On impulse alone I felt the stirrings of guilt at the likelihood that I was the reason for necessitating a replacement. I did wake up in a broken collection of bits that you could argue had been a chair. But for the life of me, I had no notion to base on if I had caused its collapse or even shared in the blame of it becoming busted.
Baylen Hereward was half-humming some merry little melody as he went about his work. It was sadly a sentiment I couldn’t share, but then again of the two of us he looked to be in superior shape. My mood didn’t seem to be showing much sign of improving past dour I decided. Confronted by anything remotely resembling cheer would only try my temper and yet knowing that I allowed my mouth to open.
“Show me mercy Baylen, help me free form this fog,” I implored the horribly happy man. By this point I was confident any lapses in judgment were going to remain confined to the previous night. So I figured I might as well continue forward and allow them to fall where they may. Who knows, maybe I would be able to go ahead and get any remaining bad luck out of my system now.
“What happened here last night? The last thing I remember was getting paid and you offering me a drink. The next thing I know, I am waking up here feeling like I have been thoroughly thrashed by thugs. A fact I could almost argue as an explanation except for being left with at least some of my coin.”
Patient and calm, Baylen waited for me to finish my plea before attempting to address me with an answer. “Well,” he began with a casual chuckle. “You my friend were quite fond of your drinking last night. Figured you were eager to unwind and you weren’t making a scene so I figured there wasn’t any need to cut you off. Besides, it was a welcome change to have so many paying patrons enjoying each others company.”
“That speaks to my sore skull, but not my fallen funds,” I heard my thoughts tripping their way over my thick tongue. Baylen’s look was one of experience and understanding as he sympathetically smiled back at me. At least he hadn’t taken offense at my comment, but just to be safe it was probably for the best to avoid any further slips.
“Obviously, you spent it,” he told me without flinching. “You were somewhat spirited in that regard; buying rounds – even inviting in strangers off the street. My friend, you let it slip of your own need of your earned coin so I did my best to limit your spending as I could. But something else was outweighing your worries. Tell me now, no longer under the uncertainty of the night: what danger do you sense descending on us?”
You can say what you want about Baylen Hereward; the man is far sharper and shrewd than most give him credit for. Any ale-slinger could bend his ear your way when you’ve had enough to spill your guts. But Baylen was keen enough to pick up on all that you didn’t say. Not only that, I suppose I owed him some measure of gratitude for helping me to keep some of my money when I might have otherwise abandoned it.
“So I was engaged in attempting to keep people off the streets last night then,” I asked more to myself than Baylen. Humoring me he just nodded and offered forward a steaming mug. Accepting it I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the aroma as I reflected over the details.
“I needed to talk to you about Lillian, Baylen; you said you had known her for a lengthy stretch.” Without argument, the brewing businessman nodded in agreement and waited for me to continue. “Has she been acting any different recently? Notice any changes in her work or personality at all?”
“Lillian was a well mannered woman and a hard worker,” Baylen explained. “She wasn’t above being slightly amiss about arriving on time, but otherwise she didn’t give me any trouble. I hired her when she was little more than a slip of a girl as a kindness to her folks. But she proved in short enough order capable of earning her keep.”
Everything was still blurred and cloudy in my head but I bullied it aside as I tried to take note of what Baylen was saying. “In all that time has she ever shown any skill at spellcasting or a desire to start up a shop of her own?” I had to keep asking questions as I attempted to find any clues in her behavior that might help me.
“As a lass, Lillian had developed a minor hand at magic but she rarely dabbled in it,” he answered me. “There has never been any interest in her in being ambitious; she has always been content working here for me. In truth, we had always made the joke that as I became too old to run the place she would take over for me. Without a wife or wee ones of my own I have always looked on her and Abigail to entrust it to continue with.”
“So, she wasn’t suffering for funds or unhappy in her treatment at all,” I commented quietly. “If I had ever suspected it I would have acted,” Baylen interrupted me. Grief was gravely etched around his eyes as I could almost imagine he was re-thinking every interaction he had ever had with her. It was no surprise now why he had pressed me to try and influence her fate any way I could. The man felt horrible, he had cared and looked after Lillian. Now he was just as desperate for answers as I was.
“Tell me about this problem patron that she acted so agitated about,” I suggested. There had to be more to the story, she had made a show of stubbornly serving the man only to be acting in collaboration with him. “Has he been coming around for long? She ever said anything about why he bothered her or voiced any manner of complaints?”
Baylen’s brow furrowed as it flexed to summon up anything stored behind his eyes. “The fellow first started appearing shortly before we started having trouble keeping patrons in here with open pockets,” he mentioned. “If memory serves he just waltzed in one evening and started ordering an occasional drink. He always seemed to have taken a fancy to Lillian, and it was an aspect she didn’t seem to stomach. I never saw him strike her or slight her openly because I wouldn’t have stood for it. But I also never noticed him manifest any form of manners like my other customers generally kept to.”
“She never spoke about the guy to you?” I had to ask him a little more directly, not just to direct his thoughts but to help me guide my own. With each increasing degree of illumination the sun seemed so happy to share with us my head reared with added demand for attention. “Lillian didn’t seem to have much issue holding back her mouth when he appeared last time.”
“Aye,” Baylen assented easily before pausing only for half a breath before continuing. “That was Lillian right enough, never one for keeping her mind mysterious if something didn’t set well with her. The lass did remark that the man had a peculiar presence about him that she didn’t care for much. Said he was too dirty for her and always seemed to feel like he was smothering her. I think she believed he was either following her around outside of work or watching for her to start her shift.”
“Anything ever happen before last night,” trying to address every angle of this I could I kept trying to call up any and all questions I could think of. But before Baylen could answer me I missed stopping another stray thought before it could get passed my mouth. “You mentioned him being too dirty to her, but beneath his ragged coat the man was actually rather well dressed. Did Lillian say anything further about what she meant – did she explain what she thought was so unclean about him?”
For a long stretch of silence the stalwart shopkeeper stood without even a smile as he frowned in focus. My pulse threatened to step its pace up a notch and I had to slow it with a few long slow breaths. Instinct was still trying to tell me something, there was some detail here that I just hadn’t got wind of yet. The only thing that would help me find a trail to track would be information, and for that I had to keep concentrated on asking the right questions.
“I overheard her confiding in Abigail one evening late, it was early on in our dry spell,” Baylen’s words tumbled out as if he was walking back through the memory of the moment itself. “They were talking about how slow things were and how certain regulars temperaments were adjusting, things like that. Lillian made a strange comment about how the newest face had taken an unwelcome interest in her and that he left her feeling sullied every time he came around. I believe she compared it to how she had felt once when she was just old enough to understand; she’d gotten lost and found herself passing through the Guilty Gutter.”
On reflex I couldn’t repress a reflexive shudder of sympathy. For any decent lady to have been introduced rather rudely to one of the more unseemly areas of Emberhelm was bad enough. But to imagine someone young and potentially ignorant to stumble into that street while lost was not a fond memory I could see her cherishing. I was a man and even I wouldn’t relish walking those corridors willingly. It just wasn’t the kind of place anyone went unless they sought some appetite they couldn’t appease otherwise.
And that one chance experience had left her with a feeling that was the only way she could express how being around the Butcher made her feel. Had she been somehow influenced by the affects of his magic or was some part of her trying to speak out against whatever workings they were engaged in? Knowing now how fragmented Lillian had been reduced to I couldn’t rule out the chance that part of her was acting along with the Butcher while others were blind to it. Maybe somewhere in the mix was something I could use.
“What else can you tell me about Lillian,” I implored while I tried to form a plan of what my next move should be. “Does she still have any family around, any children or anything? Any idea where she was staying or anyone close to her outside of work? I’d like to follow up and try to find anything I can to figure this whole mess out.”
A heavy weight hammered down on me that coincided with the full force of Baylen’s bearing as his posture shifted into a solid stance. His voice rang out crystal clear and resolute as he regarded me when he spoke. There was only a sound of strength in what I could describe as a steel spirit in his tone.
“I’ve answered your questions as well as I could,” he stated and I found myself incapable of arguing the point. “I will continue to tell you everything else that I can to be of assistance as well. But I think before we go another step forward that you owe me an answer as well. So tell me, right now; what is worrying you – what is this all about?”
I could feel my own shame reasserting itself at my ignorance and at the knowledge that all I could say with any certainty was that something sinister was at work. And whatever that strange scheme was I could only guess, with no concrete clues to prove anything. Despite shattering any measure of professional image I may have already established I told Baylen the truth anyway.
“Something has magically meddled with Lillian’s mind, whatever she was doing she may not be completely responsible for.” It felt awkward admitting everything but it also was a relief as well. “There is something in play, some greater plan at work and whoever is behind it is able to cover there tracks in ways I’ve never encountered before. I have faith Lillian will get some help she will need, but I have to figure this out before it spirals into something worse. Getting to the bottom of what has been done to her and why is key. Other innocent people could be in danger and if SpellHounds become officially involved it might only complicate everything.”
Grunting in agreement, Baylen placed an empty glass before me and poured a drink. Then he mirrored the movements and placed a duplicate one before himself as well. “In that case, let us drink to a happy hunt dear hound, and bid fate show us a kind smile,” he toasted with a raised glass. “You said it brother,” I quipped; we shared our drink and our worries before he set about telling me every manner of information he could. This time though, I wisely reminded myself to forgo any further beverages before setting off to sniff out some trouble.