Cover by Mitchell Malloy
Champions of Aetaltis is here! Originally funded by backers on Kickstarter, the heroic fantasy anthology edited by Marc Tassin and John Helfers is now shipping to backers and is available for everyone to purchase. I mention this not only because Marc and the entire Mechanical Muse team are great folks, but also in the self-interest that comes with having a story in the anthology.
I’m delighted to be in such lofty company as Elaine Cunningham, Richard Lee Byers, Mel Odom, Jean Rabe, Ed Greenwood, and Erin M. Evans. In that respect, it’s a regular Forgotten Realms reunion, but we’re fewer than half of the contributing authors to this massive tome. Check out the Table of Contents below, as well as the first page of my story, “The Undercity Job.” (Thanks to John Helfers for saving the title.)
In addition to the cover art and ToC, Melanie Meadors organized a first page of each story for us to share with you. Greedy as I am, I asked for more, and Marc okayed my sharing the first big section of my story with you. It’s a little less than a third of the finished story, so if you like it, you know where to get the rest—and plenty more stories to boot.
There’s something a little peculiar about the band of heroes I introduce in “The Undercity Job,” something I’ve done only once before. The first person to identify the previous story, what it has in common with this one, and post it here before the end of May 2016, I’ll send you a little prize. Hint: You won’t find it under my usual byline.
So check out the Table of Contents, then the first layout page of “The Undercity Job,” and keep scrolling down for the first big course of the story.
The Undercity Job
“Are you sure this is the place?” Wren clutched Norda’s arm. Even through armor, the sprite’s touch felt warm. Her huge eyes and tufted, fawn-like ears gave her an expression of perpetual innocence—a look balanced by the wicked angles of her coiling horns.
Norda grunted an affirmative. Judging by appearances, they stood at the mouth of Labor Lane.
Human men and women she took for hiring agents stood on either side of the narrow alley. Some operated out of the back doors of shops, others beside tables spotted with bird droppings. A few had posted signs, but most just called out the type of work they had to offer: “Porters,” “Carpenters,” “Mudders,” “Diggers,” and so on.
Norda eyed a rosy-cheeked man leaning beside a sign that read Guards. Returning her gaze, he noted the headless axe handle dangling from her hip, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. She bit down to suppress a swell of irritation, less directed at the man than at the reminder of her lost blade. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t the agent they wanted.
A human girl no taller than Norda dashed down the alley, dodging adults on either side of a runnel of waste. She held a scuffed leather ball out of reach of the three younger children chasing her, leaping the filthy stream to evade their grasp.
The children split to either side of Norda and Wren, who had to do a little dance to avoid stepping into the sewage stream. The smallest child bounced off the wooden shield slung over Norda’s back.
“Sorry!” she peeped.
“Watch where you’re going!” snapped Norda. “There ought to be a rule about children running in the streets.
With a wild grin, Wren started after the children. Norda grabbed the sprite’s doe-skin jerkin to hold her back. Wren wriggled out of her grip and pouted. “They were having so much fun.”
“We’re not here for fun,” said Norda. She realized she’d lost sight of their other companions. “Where are the Wiseacres?”
“Wherever they went, I bet they’re having fun.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Norda glanced up at the blue sky visible between the roofs. It took her a moment to spy Thistle perched on the eaves. The fairy was no bigger than a doll. Folded to her sides, her butterfly wings resembled a blue-and-gold cloak.
Norda crossed her wrists and wriggled her thumbs, their sign for the frisky halfling twins. Thistle pointed down the lane, indicating the side opposite her perch. She held up a number of tiny fingers. Norda squinted to count: eight.
Norda and Wren wound their way down the lane, avoiding the muck and the people seeking work. All of them were human. Norda hadn’t noticed anyone but humans since they had entered Hawk’s Crest. The dwarf and her diminutive companions stood out.
The only other small person in the lane was another young girl in a dirty frock. Her arms and legs looked as thin and fragile as twigs. She held up a lump that looked like a punctured leather ball to a man calling out for porters. When he shook his head, she tottered over and offered it to Wren.
The sprite ruffled the girl’s tangled hair and pointed. “Your friends went that way.”
“I’m hiring,” said the girl.
Norda eyed the child. Her hollow cheeks spoke of hunger, but that was a loaf of bread in her hands, not a ball. The girl held it to try to conceal the bites she’d taken out of the other end.
Wren was already looking up at Norda with the big, sad eyes routine. With a weary sigh, Norda removed the purse from between her breasts and dug out their last two silver coins. She handed them to the girl. “Go buy something hot to eat.”
“But that’s not—”
“Somebody gives you a gift, you say thanks,” said Norda. “That’s the rule.”
“Thanks. It’s just—”
Norda walked away, pulling Wren by the arm.
The strong smell of stale lager and tobacco wafted from the door Thistle had indicated. Inside, Norda saw a room full of casks, chains of sausage, and wheels of cheese. Through an open door on the far wall, she saw the taproom. Two big figures lounged near the untended bar. Only three other figures resided in the center of the room.
A woman with long flame-red hair leaned back in a chair, her heels hooked over the edge of a table. Beside her, a long spear with a head like a sword blade leaned against a pillar. On the table lay a few parchment pages and a wand with a bulbous head tipped with two horny spikes.
Across from the woman, the Wiseacres took turns interrupting each other as they made their pitch.
Norda cursed. The last thing she needed was for Darbin and Findle Wiseacre to make the first impression on the hiring agent. If they didn’t need the money, she might have left them there to humiliate themselves.
She glanced back up to see Thistle fluttering down to perch on the opposite roof. The fairy nodded at Norda, who nodded back. Despite the reputation of fey creatures as flighty things, Thistle was the one lookout she could count on. The others were far too easily distracted, as the boys were proving at that moment.
“Here they are!” said Wren. She dashed in to join the halflings.
Norda followed and took a better look at the men at the bar. Neither was human, and each was taller sitting down than the dwarf was standing up.
The bald orog rested his bulk across three creaking bar stools. A domelike head squatted neckless between round shoulders. The bar groaned under the weight of an iron-studded club. The brute chuckled, a line of spittle connected his two upper teeth with the three remaining on the bottom. “They’re all wee things!”
The drothmal leaned against a pillar, his face etched into a leonine snarl exaggerated by the swirls of primal tattoos on his cheeks and forehead. Where his companion was all bulk, the barbarian’s lean frame wound like wire around a sword’s grip. Norda nodded at him, one warrior to another. He looked away as if bored.
She turned back to the woman at the table, taking her for the hiring agent. The redhead glanced at the new arrivals before turning her amused face back to the halflings, whose body language told Norda the woman had them wrapped around her finger. The dwarf also noted that the woman was barely half a foot taller than she. That was something. In Norda’s experience, tall people looked down on her and her friends, figuratively as well as literally.
Norda’s relief turned to alarm when she spied the spider perched on the woman’s hand. Its hairy legs moved as the woman turned her wrist, but the worst part was the eyes. Instead of the glossy black beads of normal spiders, this one had eight grape-sized eyes with pupils and irises surrounded by bloodshot whites. The irises were matched pairs: two brown, two gray, two blue, and two yellow.
“Is it looking at me?” said Darbin.
“Don’t be afraid, little darlin’,” said the woman. “They’re just having a look-see.”
They?! Norda shuddered. She looked down at Wren who was looking up at her, mouthing, They?!
“I’m not afraid of spiders,” said Findle. He tossed his head to shake the curly hair out of his eyes and held out his hand. “Can I hold it?”
Darbin tossed his own head and held out a hand in echo of his twin’s gesture. “No, me first! I’m not afraid either.” The more competitive the boys became while trying to impress a pretty woman, the more they seemed connected by invisible strings.
The orog guffawed and slapped the bar top. “They’re barely snacks. Better feed it both.”
The Wiseacres stepped back in unison.
The redhead giggled and raised the weird spider to her shoulder. It crawled onto her leather pauldron and raised a pair of legs to the woman’s neck. She stroked its abdomen and nodded as if listening to its whisper.
“Don’t you worry none. They’re not hungry. Anyway, I reckon we’ve got business. Which of you boys is the boss of your little group?”
“Neither of them,” said Norda, shoving the halflings aside.
“Aw…” grumbled the Wiseacres.
Wren pushed between them. “Mind your manners, or I’ll pinch you both.”
Norda left the Wiseacre wrangling to Wren, who relished the task. “It’s a recovery, I hear. Who’re you, and what’s the item?”
The redhead offered such a pretty smile that Norda could almost forgive the smitten Wiseacres. Despite her brutish companions and that horrible spider, she had a certain charm.
“I’m Haley Green,” said the redhead. “And this here’s what’s missing.”
She turned around the top parchment. On it was a pastel sketch of a box inlaid with white gold in web patterns. Red and purple gems nestled between the threads like captured insects. “Contract’s for recovery undamaged and—now this is the important thing—unopened. The pay is …” She thought for a moment. “Two hundred.”
“I heard it was four.”
Haley shrugged. “Half pay for half size.”
The orog slapped his thigh and unleashed a terrifying belly laugh. Even the drothmal’s grim mouth turned up on one corner.
The spider leaned against Haley’s ear, stroking her neck as it whispered. Norda felt bile rise in her throat. She hated spiders.
“Also, they want the thief,” said Haley. “Intact.”
Norda frowned. “For the city guard?”
Haley shook her head and gave a lopsided smile. “Uh-uh.”
The drothmal cracked his knuckles.
Norda didn’t like to imagine what those bruisers would do to a thief. She looked straight at the weird spider and said, “We aren’t bounty hunters. And we’re not cut-rate anything.”
Haley glanced at her shoulder. The spider rubbed the tips of its palps together like a moneylender calculating risk. It whispered again. “Bringing them the thief’s what you call non-negotiable,” the redhead said. “Shame. You’re just the right size for where he’s run off.”
“And where’s that?”
“We got a deal?”
Broke as they were, and without better prospects for a job, Norda shook her head. “No deal.”
Haley looked surprised, and perhaps a little impressed. The orog looked confused, the drothmal bored. Before Haley could say something else, Norda walked out, trusting Wren to bring the Wiseacres.
Back out on Labor Lane, they formed a half-circle against the back wall of a chandler’s shop. Thistle flew down to perch on the top of Norda’s shield. The rustle of her delicate wings reminded Norda of the spider so close to Haley’s ear, but the fairy smelled of ripe blackberries.
Darbin wiggled his fingers. “One pass down this street can net us enough coin for supper.”
“Not on this street,” said Findle, eying the people looking for work. “Everyone looks as broke as us.” He peeked through the window of the chandlery. “But if you distract the shop owner, I can crack the cash box and—”
“No cracking cash boxes! No picking pockets!” said Norda. She looked around to see a few of the hiring agents looking her way. She lowered her voice. “No stealing from regular folk.”
“What if we take only half the cash?” said Findle.
“No,” growled Norda.
“What if we return it after we get a new job?” said Darbin.
Wren giggled. Norda shot her a warning glare. The mercurial sprite could shift roles from Norda’s enforcer to the Wiseacres’ enabler in the wink of an eye. “No stealing from regular folk,” said the sprite, mimicking Norda’s gruff voice. “That’s Norda’s rule!”
“You have so many rules,” sighed Darbin. “Sometimes I forget them all.”
“Not if you know what’s good for you,” said Norda.
“Hello again, cutie,” said Wren, turning outside their circle. “I’m Wren. What’s your name?”
The girl had returned, once again holding the sad-looking loaf in a futile attempt to hide the bites she’d taken—including two new ones. She held up the two silver coins Norda had given her. “I’m Myna. I want to hire you.”
Surprise gave way to regret that Norda hadn’t paid attention to what the girl had said earlier. Norda hated it when taller people dismissed her; she shouldn’t have done the same to Myna. “What’s the job?”
“A re-trie-val,” said the girl, pronouncing the word carefully, as if she’d only recently learned it. “I want you to re-trieve my big brother, Hebbet.”
“Where’d he go?”
The girl pointed down.
Norda glanced down the dirty runnel of waste water to the grate at the end of the lane. Norda frowned. The sewers were bad enough, but she’d heard rumors of the ruined city of Norentor, an ancient Alliance city, lying beneath the foundations of Hawk’s Crest. “What’s he doing down there?”
“People were chasing him because he was trying to sell a box.”
Norda glanced back at the tavern, but no one seemed to be eavesdropping on their conversation.
She took a bite of the pathetic loaf before passing the bread around. Her comrades each took a nibble before passing it back to the girl. Norda took back her silver coins and returned them to her purse.
Continued in Champions of Aetaltis, now available.