“Where is it!?”
Papers flew everywhere, and books tumbled off the shelves onto the floor. Dust particles floated lazily through the air, pushed everywhere on currents stirred up by the activity in the room. Light streamed in through large stained-glass windows.
Brother Benedict rifled through books and paper, looking for a special volume. Success eluded him. Panic was written his face, if the Padre knew that it had been lost, then someone would have to pay, and Benedict knew who that someone was.
Hours away, sitting in a jet-black stagecoach, Marlowe Sondell laughed with delight tossing a small leather bound book in his left hand. The monks hadn’t even noticed as he had snuck into the famous Library of the Monks. It was such a beautiful building that he had for a moment felt a small sliver of remorse. He quickly packaged those feelings up and tossed them far into the recesses of his conscience where he hoped they would never bother him again.
Marlowe called forward to the driver.
“Please be so kind as to take me to the next seaside town.”
“Right you are sir. Next seaside town it is.”
After another hour or so, Marlowe noticed a distinct change in scenery. They had been driving through rolling hills with the odd farm peppered here and there. Now they were driving alongside a cliff face. On one side, the road shot up into a steep mountain, and on the other, it dropped precipitously off into the ocean. Whoever had designed this road must have had a death wish.
“This road is called the Hangman’s Noose,” called back the driver.
“Why is that?”
“Well… So many people died driving this road, that they hanged the road designer for manslaughter.”
Marlowe turned pale and felt his knuckles going whiter with every turn they made. Soon though, he knew that they were slowly making their way down towards the shoreline. One more sharp turn, and a large town presented itself on the horizon.
Two hours of driving later, and the horses’ hooves met cobblestone street. Trade, both naval and land-based, had caused this town to flourish, and although they were driving through a relatively nice part of town Marlowe could sense the rampant decay making its way into the very roots of the town. If this town could be compared to a tree, it would be an oak which was slowly dying, rotting from the inside. All towns which had grown so quickly would have some form of moral decay, but none were as bad as this. Rubbish lined the footpaths, waste water ran freely down the middle of the street, white eyes peered out of soot-stained faces, and all manner of objects flew out the windows. It was obvious to see that this town of dirty ghosts had been largely untouched by the Prince’s redevelopment programs.
“Welcome to Mastoch, Mr…”
“Sondell. My name is Sondell.”
“…Mr. Sondell, this is the sorriest seaside town you’ll see on this side of the Ranges.”
“Perfect…” Muttered Marlowe to himself. “Driver… Take me to the Golden Barque!”
If Marlowe could have seen the driver’s face, he would have seen horror plastered all over it. The Golden Barque had a reputation in this town as the lowest, dirtiest, and most criminally inclined tavern this side of the river. No gentleman in his right mind would ever go to the Golden Barque, unless for some more suspicious motive.
“Why would you want to go there? You are a gentleman, sir.”
A muffled shot came from the cabin behind him, and the driver wondered what had happened. He didn’t have to wait long. He could feel a warm sticky sensation spreading across his chest. When he looked down, red was spreading through his shirt. Shock crossed his face, and he had just enough time to think about what had happened before he dropped headfirst into the street and didn’t move again.
Marlowe climbed around to the driver’s seat.
“You ask the wrong questions, my good fellow.”
Whistling a soft tune, Marlowe drove off towards the Golden Barque, book in pocket, and sinister look on his face.
The stagecoach wound through narrow streets. Clothing dried on washing lines which hung above the pavement. The street was slick beneath the horses’ feet, and they clopped on hard cobblestones. Marlowe and the stagecoach crossed bridges over murky black canals and made their way further and further into the darkest recesses of the town.
Soon they reached the Golden Barque. It was a seedy looking place, nestled in a canal, yellow light shining out the windows, it lived up to its terrifying reputation. Patrons spewed out into the streets surrounding, patrons who more than matched the stereotypical ideal of thieves, liars, and beggars. A repurposed canal boat, it had once been the apple of the Duke of Mastoch’s eye, stolen right from under his nose during a carnival day it now symbolized the success of the unsavoury class and showed the rot at the very core of Mastoch more accurately than any report could.
Marlowe tied the horses up and crossed a gangway onto the deck. Rowdy music blared out the windows, and the laughter of ones who had drunk too much slipped through cracks in the walls. Marlowe walked inside.
The inside was even more disgusting than the outside. Bones from many meals lay littered across the floor. Greasy streaks ran up the inside of the wall, and this was all illuminated by whale oil lamps which sputtered and put out a horrendous smelling smoke. Marlowe carefully picked his way around drunken revellers, and made his way to a small booth in the back.
His employer, a small rotund man about 5 feet tall and sporting a handlebar moustache to rival the Duke’s, pulled him in.
“Do you have it?” He asked Marlowe earnestly.
Marlowe carefully pulled the book out of a satchel which he carried under his long black coat. He tossed it onto the table. His employer hissed in alarm.
“Careful… Careful! Don’t damage it!”
“What’s so important about that anyway. There’s nothing but blank pages inside.” Marlowe said, nonchalantly putting his boots on the table.
“It’s not the pages that are important. It’s what’s inside the cover.”
Pulling a knife out of his belt, Marlowe’s employer carefully ran it down the spine of the book, and prised it off. A small weathered roll of paper and a dainty golden key fell out. Marlowe took his feet off the table and leaned in, suddenly interested. On the paper, it read:
He who finds courage within,
Shall not find a place inside,
Though he walks through thick and thin,
He will never turn the tide.
The power over all creation,
Life eternal, Never dying,
Riches beyond imagination,
Forever without sorrow, pain, or crying.
That is the secret of this book,
Beware lest you take a second look,
He who this quest begins,
Will have to face his darkest sins.
“That seems a bit morbid,” said Marlowe, “and it doesn’t make any sense.”
“That is why, my friend, you will not be coming with me.”
“What are you talking about?”
Marlowe’s employer pulled out a rapier.
“You have served your purpose, now you must die.”
Quicker than a flash, Marlowe whipped out his sword. It had been his fathers, the sword of a naval captain, it was well balanced and had been through much.
Blades clashed. Marlowe’s feet moved like lightning. His opponent was skilled, but Marlowe, through long years of practice soon gained the upper hand. All around them people screamed and yelled. Trying to distract him, Marlowe’s employer lashed out at a lantern. It fell to the deck with a crash, and flames licked the sides of the barge.
Patrons of the establishment jumped overboard into the canal. It was autumn, the waters would be frigid, but no one had any desire to be trapped on a flaming boat with two madmen. It was clear that the doctor would have plenty of business this winter. Marlowe slowly pushed his employer back towards the edge of the boat.
“You would have done well not to double cross me!” He yelled with finality, running his blade into his employer’s heart. Marlowe quickly searched the body, and grabbed the mangled book, the poem, and the key. As he looked closer at the key, he could see remarkable patterns and designs on it, some looked like they had come from the Land beyond the Sea, others from the Eastern Wastes. Marlowe wondered what they could mean.
The canal widened into a lake before him, and flames flickered sinisterly behind him as the barge slowly made its way into the night.
It hadn’t taken long for Marlowe to notice that the barge was sinking. He had dived off the side of the boat, swum to the shore, and found himself in the southeast quadrant of Mastoch. While he had spent a few months trying to decipher the poem and how it linked to the key, he had soon given up and started on the long slow spiral into despair. He had spent more than a few nights locked up in the Southeast Dungeons.
It had been many months since the barge, the poem still made no sense to him, and he couldn’t find a lock to fit the key into. He had slumped into a state of mindless drunkenness. That was where he was now, lying in a gutter, his normally clean-shaven face covered by an unkempt beard, he would make rude comments at pedestrians who passed by. Drink had become a natural part of life for him, and that made him horrible to deal with. People passed him by with barely a second glance. It was in this manner that he picked up on something that would change his current state of life.
It was a cold afternoon in the middle of December, Marlowe hadn’t eaten well in months, and he was steeling himself to go steal some bread so that he wouldn’t spend another night being hungry. Just as he rose to his feet, a petite young woman with blonde hair strolled past casually talking to an old man in a top hat. Marlowe paid them no mind and was just heading into a dark alley when he caught snippets of their conversation.
“Do you know where he’s gone?” asked the young woman.
“No one knows where he’s gone, Miss Fyre. Mr. Sondell is a bit of a legend around Mastoch. Some say he went off to Wendsolm searching for treasure with that poem of his. Others claim they have seen him around town.”
“What do you say?”
“Me? I think he’s robbed some people, set himself up for life, and settled down with a good bar wench who’ll scream at him for putting his muddy boots up on the table.”
Marlowe couldn’t help but snort with derision at that comment. If these people only knew what he had been through.
“Did you hear something, John?”
“No, not really. I think you’re getting too suspicious what with all this subterfuge we’re dealing in.”
“You can never be too suspicious when you know what I know about Mr. Sondell’s quest.”
Marlowe’s ears pricked up at that and he was about to advance closer so he could hear better when little warning bells sounded in his head. How could they know about his mission? Not many people knew about that. If their suspicions were correct, then what else did they know? Why were they in the part of town where he spent his time, and just standing there talking about things they shouldn’t even know? To him, it all just seemed too convenient. He decided that he would follow them and see where they were going, perhaps then he would find out what they knew. Perhaps then he would be one step closer to unveiling the truth of the poem.
Keeping the pair in sight, Marlowe followed them at what he considered a safe distance. Every now and then, the pair would turn around, and at one point Ms. Fyre commented to the man wondering if they were being followed.
“My dear Ms. Fyre, I think you’ve been in the Game too long.”
Such a mundane statement, and yet it set every nerve in Marlowe’s body on fire and edge. These two were part of the Duke’s special service. Marlowe wondered what they were doing, whether they had orders, and if not, then why would they go rogue? It seemed far too convenient that they had been nearby when talking about the paper. Although their conversation had seemed mundane, the fact that the woman had even mentioned his ‘quest’ coupled with her evident connection to the Game terrified him. He looked up from his musings and was shocked to find that the two he had been thinking so much about had disappeared. He looked around angrily for something to hit. As he turned, the pair stepped out of the shadows.
“Hello, Marlowe. It’s been a long time.”
He looked into her face, and a spark of recognition darted across Marlowe’s mind. That blonde hair, that pert nose, those delicate blue eyes framed by well-defined eyebrows.
“Hello Josephine. It has.”
The fact that she was called Josephine had always annoyed him, she never struck him as a Josephine.
“Well, I had better be going.”
Marlowe had forgotten how fast she could move. Despite wearing a long dress made of heavy fabric, it took her less than a second to be right up next to him. Her long arm around his neck. The scent of her perfume, strong yet sweet, smelling faintly of lavender tingled his nose, reminding him of times long gone.
“You smell nice.”
“Ever the charmer aren’t we Mr. Sondell? You’re not going anywhere, we need your help.”
“I’m sorry, but you couldn’t afford me.”
“Oh no? Did I say you had a choice? Father is waiting.”
“Don’t tell me he dragged you into this weirdness too? Why do you need my particular skills?”
Despite his outward confidence, inwardly Marlowe was trembling.
“We have something that we need to do. A voyage of sorts.”
To be Continued