The elven wine came in three different varieties; a green elven summer wine, an Evereskan red, and a dry white that seemed to have come from somewhere in Greyspace. Of the three, the summer wine was his personal favourite. He brought those up first. “I recommend this one,” he said to Luigi. “We used to drink it back home.” He coughed and cleared his throat. Then he went back down and hauled up the ale.
“Set it in the empty spot,” Luigi instructed him. In the meantime, the beholder had tossed some trash into the empty cask and he asked Shaundar to carry the full barrel that preceded it into the alley; which he did.
Shaundar saw the movement out of the corner of his eye at about the same time that the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He put the stack of waste barrels between him and the intruders. A small troupe of brightly-dressed street performers came into the alley; except that these so-called performers were armed with slings and belaying-pins. There were two humans, a mustachioed man and a hatchet-faced woman; a gnome with a respectably tall red hat, a scowling halfling, and a half-elven youth with a pencil-thin mustache. He resembled the human male somewhat.
“Good evening, Mr. Sunfall,” the man with the curly mustachios greeted him with a bow and a flourish. “The Juggler, on behalf of her friend young Mr. Kullek, sends her regards.” He grinned and they began to spread out, tapping their pins against their hands.
Kullek? Who in the Demonweb was Kullek? But the Juggler was a name he knew. She was one of the four legendary Underbarons of Bral; a leader of a criminal syndicate that often included swindlers and con men, according to rumour. He supposed that explained the performers’ outfits. “Don’t do this to yourselves,” Shaundar sighed. He had no urge to fight anyone; he was weary of death and bloodshed. “If you’re here for the little punk I threw out of the bar last night, he’s not worth the effort.”
The mustachioed man’s grin widened. “The Juggler takes the needs of her clients very seriously.” Shaundar saw with an inward wince that he had mistaken Shaundar’s reluctance for fear. They started moving towards him.
“To the Hells with this,” Shaundar said in disgust, waving a hand dismissively, and he turned to head out the other end of the alley.
“Please, one moment,” another voice chimed in, this one slightly accented. Everyone was equally surprised to find the other way blocked by a pack of five Shou men with rolled-up shirt sleeves and tattoos completely coating the visible parts of their arms to the wrist. Three were apparently unarmed and two had twin weapons that looked like some kind of billy clubs with handles so that they could be clutched against the long bones of the forearms. One of the unarmed ones clasped his hands before him and made a perfunctory bow. “Nai hao, konnichiwa, Mr. Sunfall. We represent Mr. Ozamata, who offers protection services for the inhabitants of the Low City. I understand you reneged on your agreement with your landlord?” He was crisp and polite.
Shaundar groaned. Mr. Ozamata was the head of the Shou Town criminal syndicate, the Yakuza. They were a dangerous bunch. The other guys probably just wanted to rough him up, but they might actually kill him.
“We were here first,” snapped the hatchet-faced woman to the tattooed Shous.
The Yakuza man smiled a bit more. “I am sorry to disappoint the Juggler and to deprive you of your fee, but Mr. Ozamata has an image to uphold. It would reflect very poorly on his business if he were to fail to provide the services he is paid for.” Now the two groups began to keep watch on each other as well as Shaundar.
Shaundar started scanning the terrain. The door, unfortunately, had closed behind him and any attempt to open the knob would take precious seconds he couldn’t afford to waste. On the other hand, there was a cobweb sticking to the wall right next to him. “I really don’t want to fight anyone today,” he protested softly. “Just let me go back to work and leave it off. Trust me, that greaseball isn’t worth it.”
The Yakuza also began to fan out. “I am afraid that is not my concern, Mr. Sunfall.”
Shaundar considered it. Well, his odds were probably much better with the Juggler’s people. “That’s too bad,” he said with regret; and with that, he scraped the web off of the wall and charged through the Juggler gang, simultaneously knocking down the half-elf and throwing the web into their midst with an arcane word. It made an almost rubber-band like sound as it expanded. He didn’t look back but he could tell that it had produced the desired effect, which was to expand until it filled the alley, and possibly entangle them all, by the string of cursing and shouting that trailed him.
He fled for the alley’s end. “Get him!” roared the man with the mustache.
Not knowing how far they might be behind him, Shaundar ran for all he was worth, figuring that the market was probably a good place to lose them. To his stunned disbelief there was yet another pack of thugs blocking his path. A handful of half-orcs clustered around a small man with a strongbox; illegal moneychangers, plying their trade with a pair of illithid. They saw Shaundar coming at them and one of them shouted, “Hey you! Get away from here!”
“Clear the road!” Shaundar yelled; and when they didn’t, he ran right through them as well. One of the half-orcs tried to grab his breastplate. He slapped the hand aside, knife-handed the half-orc in the throat, and allowed his momentum to carry him on past the thug, bouncing him off of a wall.
“That guy’s trying to rob us!” the other thug cried; and soon they were giving chase as well.
He burst into the busy market square; chose to go left instead of right, and ran right into a half-ogre in a stevedore cap. Shaundar’s momentum and aim were perfect to knock him end over end. The stevedore landed on his face, busting off a tusk, and he lay still. “Sorry!” he called as he went by, glancing back over his shoulder. The moneychanger’s thugs were coming out of the alley, along with most of the Juggler gang, still draped in webbing. The Yakuza were right behind them.
“Hey!” bellowed one of his companions, who had to be the ugliest man Shaundar had ever seen. “That elf knocked down Willy! Let’s get him!”
“Are you kidding me?” Shaundar exclaimed. About a dozen big men in stevedore caps, all of whom might have had goblinoid blood of some kind, joined the chase.
Shaundar glanced around himself quickly. He saw a cooper’s wagon, scrabbled up on it and kicked loose one of the barrels. It rolled down and broke over the head of the stevedore in the lead. “For Sehanine’s sake!” the elven marine cried. “I don’t want to fight today, damn it!”
“Well, too bad, jack!” snapped the ugly stevedore. Shaundar followed the barrel with another one and it broke open too. “You shouldn’t have hit Willy! OW!” He started scrabbling up the back of the wagon to get at Shaundar.
“Hey, you gonna pay for those?” demanded the dwarven cooper in a cynical monotone.
Shaundar picked up one of the barrels and slammed it down over the stevedore’s head. The cap came askew and the metal banding pinned his arms firmly to his sides. Shaundar then kicked his feet out from under him and rolled him into the first two of his companions. All three fell down and the ones behind them tripped over them in a tangle of swearing and limbs.
Shaundar flung the contents of his money pouch at the cooper and leaped up onto a grocery cart. He started flinging apples at the congregation of thugs and bullies. “I just want to go back to work, you assholes!” he roared in disgust. He could see that though the Yakuza had followed the circus out of the alley, they were standing at its mouth, watching the scene unfold with incredulous faces.
“Get that son-of-a-bitch!” shrieked the hatchet-faced woman, clawing at the spider webs in her hair. She was so filled with rage that she didn’t notice that she was tearing hair out too.
“Kill him!” bawled the half-ogre, now back on his feet. He was heading in the wrong direction, however, and still blinded by the dirt in his eyes or the throb in his head, he swung a gigantic haymaker punch that took out one of the two illithid, who had followed the moneychangers out in their curiosity. The mind flayer did about three flips before coming to rest in a bone-picker’s dung pile. Its companion hit Willy with a mind blast; he spun around like a top and that haymaker became a windmill that clocked one of the half-orc thugs and sent him flying into a dovecote. Willy’s eyes rolled back up in his head and he hit the dirt again; while the dovecote broke open and what looked to be hundreds of brightly-coloured birds took to the air in a flock. The unfortunate half-orc staggered to his feet swearing a blue streak. He was now also minus a tusk and covered in bird droppings to boot.
The halfling and the gnome from the Juggler gang stopped and took aim with their slings. Shaundar reached for the first available shield-like item and found one of those flat metal Shou pans. He ducked his head behind it just in time for the first stone to bounce off of it with a metallic krang! The second one found his breastplate. The steel dented in but the leathery pads behind it prevented it from doing much more than that. He threw the thing like a chakram and the half-elf ducked just in time. It stuck edge-first in a hay bale three stalls down, taking the half-elf’s feathered cap with it.
The shopkeepers started coming out of their stores, wondering what was going on. An old Shou man, evidently the owner of the pan, began to yell incoherently and shake his fist. “Sorry,” said Shaundar again, and with the half-elf on the warpath, he deliberately leaped into the air and came down on the other side of the grocery cart so that it all tipped over. Hundreds of apples rolled into the street. The half-elf did quite a comical little dance and scramble in an attempt to keep his footing, but he lost it and tumbled down. The nimble halfling couldn’t stay on her feet but she rolled up out of it without much difficulty. The gnome ended up planted on his bottom, hard. He swore soundly enough to blister paint.
One of the Yakuza nodded with a solemnly impressed downturn of his mouth. Another one made a screw-loose gesture with his finger against his ear. They both laughed.
The moneychangers managed to dodge the apples, and so did the man and the woman from the Juggler gang, though the woman almost turned an ankle. Shaundar ran by a very fat, very angry looking fishwife who took a swing at him with a whole scavver. He rolled away from it as she bellowed, “Git away from my store!” She wound it back over her shoulder like a club and got the mustachioed man right in the face. He went down in a crumpled heap. “Take that,” she smirked in satisfaction. The rest of the pursuit gave her a wide berth.
He ran by Cap’n Gyudd stumping out of his store front, marked by a brass spelljammer’s sextant and a celestial compass in its window. “What in the Abyss . . . ?” he began.
“Sorry, can’t talk now,” Shaundar called over his shoulder. The Captain looked the other way and he saw the pursuing parade. The woman from the Juggler gang managed to streak by him in a shrieking banshee storm, but he noticed the half-orc moneychanger thugs coming and stuck his ivory peg leg out just in time to trip one. “So sorry,” he said innocently, helping him to his feet.
Shaundar ducked into another alley and when the shrieking hellion of the Juggler gang came careening into the dark behind him, he seized her skinny arm and flipped her over into a dumpster. He then charged back out the way he’d come, grabbed Cap’n Gyudd’s street sign, and used it to swing up and kick two of the half-orcs in the torso and knock them over. He rolled up and out of it, and realizing he was about to catch up with the stevedores, one of whom was staggering under the weight of a very pissed off illithid’s mind blast, he ducked into the shop right next door to Cap’n Guydd’s, which turned out to be “Auntie Stella’s Pet Emporium.”
“Can I . . .” the dwarven proprietress, whom Shaundar assumed was Auntie Stella, began, but he said, “Just browsing. Is there a back way out?”
“Why would you need . . .” she started again, and that’s when two of the stevedores burst in.
“There he is!” one of them exclaimed, pointing, and they both charged him.
Shaundar looked around again quickly and yanked open a cage full of tressym. The winged cats came flying out, and seeing the stevedores between them and the door, they went right for them in a yowling pride-flock. The look of horror on the faces of the stevedores was priceless; they ran right back out the way they’d come, directly into the rest of their fellows. The tressym followed them out the door, but all of them went for the mind flayer instead, which started shrieking in some weird inhuman burble and fled down the street.
“Guess they like squid,” observed Cap’n Gyudd, puffing at his pipe.
Auntie Stella started beating Shaundar with a broom. “Thief!” she cried. “Cat-napper! Get out! OUT!” Obediently Shaundar backed out the door, his hands raised in supplication, and he found himself pressed up against something solid. The shadow cast over him was not promising. He looked around and found himself eye-to-eye with the leader of the stevedores.
“Can’t we talk about this?” he suggested.
The dockworker’s face twisted into a snarl and he brought a hand around to punch Shaundar in the head. Shaundar took hold of his fist, used it to overbalance him and whirled him around into his fellows. While they were sorting themselves out, he headed back up the street.
“I WILL RIP YOUR HEAD OFF AND SHIT DOWN YOUR NECK!” howled the axe-faced woman as she emerged from the dumpster in the alley. She was streaked with garbage and the aura of reek that emanated from her was blinding from a cable away.
No one afterwards could say for certain when the press gang got involved; but the first thing anyone remembered was when Cap’n Gyudd watched them slap a bag over the reeking woman’s head and drag her off to their ship. The Captain swore he could hear her muffled screaming over the din of everything else.
Molly opened the door of the Temple-Brothel and peered out just in time to see Shaundar jog past. “Shaundar, what . . .?”
“Sorry Molly, gotta run,” he said as he scurried by.
Molly saw the motley crew in pursuit of her lover, so she invoked the power of her goddess and yanked down the front of her bustier. “Hey boys, are you looking for me?” she simpered coquettishly. Two of the stevedores stopped dead in their tracks and five of the other thugs ran right into them. She packed her breasts back under cover and stepped back into the Temple alcove.
Suddenly the press gang was everywhere and billy clubs and belaying pins were flying. “It’s a riot!” somebody cried out.
“Someone call out the Royal Guard!” someone else screamed.
Shaundar found himself in front of the Yakuza again, so he took the opportunity to explain, “I would have paid my landlord if he hadn’t sapped me.” One of the stevedores tried to lock him in a choke hold from behind. Impatiently he ducked down and stepped backward with his hand wrapped around the dockworker’s arm. Then he grabbed a hold of his foe’s thigh and jerked his feet out from under him. The stevedore went over backwards. “Part of a contract for shelter involves some degree of personal safety. I consider that contract voided.”
“I cannot say that I do not see your point, Mr. Sunfall,” the tattooed Shou man replied with a nod, as Shaundar locked the arm of one of the moneychanger gang attempting to punch him in the side of the head and threw him ass-over-tea-kettle into the remains of the cooper’s wagon, “but nevertheless, Mr. Ozamata has engaged our services and our agreement is separate from yours. I am sure you understand.”
The gnome and the halfling from the Juggler gang grabbed Shaundar by each arm. “Seriously?” he asked them both in exasperation, and he lifted his arms out beside him and pinwheeled around until he had momentum, at which point he flung both the diminutive rogues into the dung-pile that the bone-picker was just starting to get cleaned up. He let out a blowing irritated breath. In the meantime, the cursing in three languages was just getting started. “I do understand Mr. Ozamata’s position,” he assured them, slightly out of breath.
A bully from the press gang tried to smack Shaundar in the head with his club. Shaundar grabbed his hand, twisted his wrist until the sailor could make no noise but whimpering, and he dug his fingers into the pressure point near the base of the thumb until the bully let the pin go. Shaundar then smacked him in the bridge of the nose with the back of his fist. “At the same time, you need to know that Mr. Ozamata is acting on behalf of a dishonourable agent.” Another stevedore grabbed him on one side while the half-elf tried to slug him in the face on the other. Shaundar pulled the stevedore right into the path of the punch, which connected with the dockworker’s jaw, then tossed the unconscious form at the half-elf to knock him down. “This doesn’t help Mr. Ozamata’s reputation,” he concluded, panting. “Doesn’t his protection extend to me too? I’m an inhabitant of the Low City.”
Auntie Stella started beating him again with her broom. “Oh for the love of Luthic!” Shaundar cursed in Orcish. He yanked the broom out of her hands and she looked into his eyes, surprised. “They’re tressym!” he exclaimed in exquisite frustration. “They know you feed them! They’ll be back!” As a whole pack of the stevedores charged him, he clotheslined the first one with the broom who toppled right over top of it; grabbed it in his hands like a two-handed sword and slammed it right into the chin of the second and brought it down on the second’s back as he dropped for good measure. It broke; so he seized both pieces, smacked away a right jab from the third with the top part, then he jabbed the bristled bit directly into his eyes while thrusting the rounded top of the other piece into the man’s solar plexus. He slapped aside the already overextended punch offered by the fourth one with the bristled bit, and then, stepping into the strike, he hit him in the ribs while stomping on the back of his knee and calf. He went down too. “Gods-be-damned!” Shaundar roared. “I don’t want to fight today!”
The rest of the stevedores, the moneychangers, both small members of the Juggler gang and the bullies all looked around at each other, shrugged, and charged him at once.
“Run for your lives!” a piercing shriek rang out, as a handful of gnomes in handler’s garb scrambled past them. “The tressym have stampeded the giant space hamsters!”
Everything fell silent for just a split second; except, that was, for the ominous rumbling. “Oh, Hells,” groaned Shaundar. Everyone else scattered as seven hamsters the size of mammoths came looming into view, casting shadows of doom over the market square. The little bright plumaged birds, which were nibbling at the spilled apples, cried in alarm and took to flight as a flock.
“What in the name of the Great Eye is goin’ on out here?” a familiar beholder’s voice bellowed, as Large Luigi hove into view from behind the Yakuza in the alley. He took one look at the chaos, fixed on the charging hamsters, and aimed one of his eyestalks at them. “Easy there,” he said soothingly to the creatures, flying out over the Yakuza. When they reached him, they chittered and started rubbing themselves on him. “Yeah, yeah,” he said impatiently, wincing as three gigantic, adorably cute rodents pressed their faces on him, burying his eyestalks and most of his body in fur. A couple of them started nibbling at the spilled apples.
Shaundar stared in disbelief over the wreckage. Fruit, the remains of several barrels, feathers and bird poop littered the streets. The tressym had left off of the hamsters and were now chasing the bright feathered birds, zinging at random intervals through the air, the birds twittering out their indignation. Auntie Stella jogged after them, calling out, “Here kitty kitty!” She was intercepted by the fishwife, who showed her a destroyed scavver and demanded restitution. The bone-picker shovelled up the pile of dung, swearing; and the two Juggler gang members and the illithid who had landed in it were helping him, still covered in the mess; Shaundar wondered how that had been arranged and decided he was better off not knowing. A rhythmic clanging and angry jabbering echoed through the air as the old Shou man beat the half-elven youth repeatedly over the head with his pan while he tried to crawl away. The moneychanger himself – the small man with the strongbox – cowered under the cooper’s wagon. Bodies of stevedores, moneychanger thugs, entertainers, and random bystanders lay in the streets; the press gangers gathered them all like harvest gleaning. One of them waved to Shaundar in a friendly manner. “Thanks for the help!” he said cheerfully.
“Mr. Sunfall,” said the Yakuza, gaining his attention. Shaundar immediately dropped into a fighting stance and waited to see if there were going to be five actual bodies to go with the unconscious press gang victims.
The five of them stepped back into what might, in the beginning, have suggested a fighting stance; but then in unison they laid their right hands in front of themselves, palm up, and turned the stance into a formal bow of a sort. “Mr. Sunfall, we will consult. You will see us again. Perhaps it will be on better terms next time. Zai jian, sayonara.” And as one, they stood up and disappeared into the shadows.
“Holy Hells in a haversack!” Cap’n Gyudd exclaimed, limping over. “You managed to get the Juggler and the Yakuza after you at the same time? That takes talent, lad!”
Luigi glanced over at him from beneath a piebald hamster’s chin and his eyes all narrowed. “You don’t do ‘low profile’ well, do you?”
“Not anymore, I guess,” Shaundar admitted. Perhaps it would have been best if he’d taken on another identity when he hit planet; he seemed to do all right when he wasn’t being himself. But how else would he find Selena? He watched the returning gnomes as they attempted to corral the hamsters, which were ignoring them entirely. One of them reached behind its ear to scratch and accidently toppled one of its handlers over.
“What in the Great Mother’s Dominion happened, anyway?” the beholder wanted to know.
“I was trying to avoid a fight,” Shaundar explained.
Both Luigi and the Captain gaped at him incredulously. There was a long pause. “What would have happened if you’d wanted to fight?” Gyudd burst out.
Shaundar shrugged. “It would have been over more quickly.”
“The Watch is coming!” one of the press gangers bellowed, and the crowd scattered, except for the animal handlers, the angry fishwife who was now waving her fish and swearing so loudly you could hear it across the square, and the moneychanger, who seemed terrified to leave the safety of the wagon’s undercarriage. Shaundar saw the brigandine-armoured men and giff approaching with crossbows and boarding pikes, and he asked Luigi, “Do I still have a job?”
“Let’s get out of here,” he agreed, and they all tromped into the Laughing Beholder.
– from Sable’s Privateers (Toy Soldier Saga book 3).
Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author. Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012). Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year. Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.