The ancient port city of Runiel loomed out of the purpled mist like a humped-back whore, thick legs spread wide in lewd welcome to all hapless ships that came her way. It was the type of place one could get trapped, or killed. There were few places in the Summer Lands that Fett Riedel hated more than Runiel but he’d been so long at sea he would kiss the filthy streets for simple joy of solid ground beneath his water logged boots.
He stood at the prow of the ship, ignoring the frozen spray of salty sea water as their small craft maneuvered through choppy waters. His heart trembled in excitement and trepidation, making his legs restless and his hands jittery. The Towers of Runie appeared suddenly like the broken fingers of a massive fist, all odd angles and strange twists, and they seemed to offer him a silent challenge. Tread here if you dare, they said, and he suppressed a shiver. The technologies and sciences that had built those alien structures were as forgotten as the people who had built them and they made Fett’s skin crawl. Like he was staring at a fresh corpse. The more modern city stemmed from those towers like rotting roots to the edge of the rubbish clogged bay. Fett had a sense the city might have been beautiful, once, but not in the last hundred years, at least. Now it was merely a place of ruins built atop more ruins, a place full of the dead and forgotten.
The Balance was weak within the city, its citizens leaning toward strange pagan gods and even a touch of the False God to the East was present, if the rumors were to be believed. And Fett tended to believe such rumors, even if they proved to be mostly false there was always a hint of truth buried in the rubbish. Years on the streets in Ironfell as a lad had taught him to be superstitious and cautious. Bravery was all well and good until it got you killed, shoved off into a ditch and forgotten. He was no coward but he wasn’t a fool, either.
Those towers gave pause to reason, though; there was something sinister about them. Fett imagined that a giant monster, like those in the old tales of Chaos his mother used to tell him in their tiny shack of a home, lay beneath the earth with only a gnarled hand protruding, its owner merely sleeping, lying in wait. He suppressed another shiver and shrugged his oil slickened cloak closer about him, rubbing the salt from his beard with a leather gloved hand. Gods, he couldn’t wait to have a nice bath, maybe with a pretty maid to wash his back and-
“We’re nearly there,” said a soft voice to his left and he nearly tumbled off the side of the ship, clasping at a bit of rope desperately. He banged his knee hard on the wood ledge and cursed.
“Damn the Four woman, you can’t sneak up on a man like that!” He said, indignant as he righted himself. His face went red as a few passing sailors nudged each other and snickered behind dirty hands. He shot them a seething glare and they went quickly back to work.
The small woman wore a half smile on her full lips as she came up beside him. Her steps were silent and she exuded grace and confidence. Telia was a real beauty, easily one of the most beautiful women Fett had ever seen, and he’d seen a few. She also scared the shit out of him. With her ethereal exquisiteness and the strip of fine lace and silk covering her sightless eyes, she was not only beautiful, but mysterious as well. A heady combination for any man and one he was not immune to, despite several weeks in her company. And, if stories were to be believed, she was also a lethal assassin. Fett tended to believe such stories, especially when they revolved around a woman who made him feel uneasy in his own skin.
A lot of things made him uneasy these days.
They stood in silence for a span, watching the fog part as the bay welcomed them eagerly. It had been a long time since Fett had seen so many ships in one place. He gripped the worn hilt of his sword; he didn’t like crowds anymore than he liked being confined to a ship. He missed the open valleys of his birthplace and the looming presence of the Iron Mountain. Things had certainly been simpler then, but a man can’t make a living on naught but comfort.
“Do you sense it?” Telia asked at a near whisper. He glanced at her, raven hair unbound and billowing about her like a cape. She smelled of something spicy, something exotic. Fett swallowed heavily.
“S-Sense what?” He asked, silently cursing her for making him sound like a fumbling boy.
“Death,” she said, a cat like smile curled her lips.
“Hell of a thing to say,” he countered, damn tired of suppressing shivers. He didn’t like feeling nervous, made him grumpy.
Her smile only widened. “Don’t be afraid my evil smelling swordsman, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Woman had a hell of a sense of humor. Fett scoffed, “You ever been to Runiel?”
“Well let me tell you, it’s one of the most filth infested cities in all of Summer. I was nearly knifed twice the one time I had the misfortunate of staying and I only stayed the one night. You sense death here? Damn straight you do, whole city is infested with it.”
She wasn’t smiling now and she’d tilted her head at him in the unsettling way blind people had. More unsettling was the fact that she moved with perfect ease and certainty, she didn’t even carry a cane. He wondered what she Saw, or sensed, and had a distinct feeling he didn’t want to know.
“You’re upset,” she stated, “What is it?”
Fett growled and shoved a hand through his greasy hair, wincing as the honeyed strands caught on wet leather.
“Damn place makes me uneasy,” he admitted. He wasn’t the type to bear his soul to man or woman, but Telia was different. She was not just any sort of woman, speaking to her felt like confessing, like she might forgive him his shortcomings or some such bullshit.
Maybe he was just getting soft or maybe she’d cast some sort of spell over him. Of all the Four Schools, the Daughters of Darkness were by far the most mysterious. Those practices which were widely known, or believed at least, were enough to give a man pause. The thought of her casting some sort of charm over him was comforting, it was easier to lay blame on others than examine himself. He’d learned that a long, long time ago.
She was smiling again, a sort of wistful expression, face angled up, as though she were looking at the towers as they stretched branch like across a wintery blue sky. They were even more unsettling up close, twelve in total, and their dark green surfaces gleamed eerily in the morning light. There were no windows and Fett knew from unfortunate experience that there was only one door, a door no one had been able to open. He should know, he’d tried.
“There are many things to be uneasy about and we’re headed into the thick of it,” she turned toward him again and there was something challenging about her stance, “If you’d like to break our contract, now would be the time. Soon, there will be no turning back.”
Fett tried to think if he’d ever heard more ominous words. He didn’t think so. His pride didn’t even let him consider breaking terms, however. A sell-sword lived nearly on reputation alone and he was living on a small, lonely island as it was. Besides, never let it be said that Fett Riedel was out manned by a tiny woman in purple silks, possible deadly assassin or no.
“It’ll take more than some creepy towers and street thugs to scare me off, I just figured you needed a better appreciation of what we’re walking into.” He straightened up, chastising himself for acting a skittish foal.
Telia placed a delicate hand on his arm and his whole body tensed. He could feel her warmth even through the thickness of his jacket and tunic.
“I think I have a better idea of what we are walking into than you might believe,” she said. This time he didn’t bother to suppress the shiver that tore through him. She squeezed his arm for a moment, perhaps out of comfort, before pulling away.
They were silent until they finally pulled into port and even then Fett couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he was making a huge, possibly deadly mistake.