Like most cities, Dunheim had its poorer districts, swathes of the city where far less of the city’s wealth was spent, forcing those who lived there to fend for themselves in whatever manner they could. And, like many such districts in other cities, Dunheim’s poorer districts were rife with crime. All except one. And in that district, right at its heart, stood a simple house. Though small and plain, it was nonetheless home to a loving couple and their adopted daughter, and as the sun waned, the matriarch of the house was busy in the kitchen preparing the evening’s meal. Just then, the front door swung open.
“Anyone home?” came a voice from the corridor.
“In the kitchen,” the matriarch yelled as she lifted the lid of the pot simmering on the stove. As she stirred its contents, her adopted daughter wandered in.
“Ah, Yansi,” the matriarch called out. “You’re home early.”
The red-haired girl stood behind her and smiled.
“Lovely to see you too, Marshalla,” the girl replied, a response that earned her a wry smile.
The matriarch was, and many would eagerly admit, a woman of supreme beauty, a beauty that belied her age. With her long black hair shimmering in the dying light of the evening sun, she looked for all the world like a goddess of the old world, beauteous and kind.
Sighing, Marshalla shook her head. “Fine. Welcome back, Yansi, my darling, I do hope today was a wondrously productive one for you.”
Yansi grinned. “You know, I think I prefer the caustic you.”
Marshalla shook her head once more as a smile parted her lips. “There’s just no pleasing some people. Now that you’re here, though, make yourself useful and set the table.”
“Fine,” Yansi sighed as she spun round and headed for the kitchen table. As she reached it, however, she reached into her pocket. With her grin fading, she pulled out two small purses heavy with coin, then placed them upon the dinner table. However, though she’d placed the purses with the greatest of care, the moment they touched the table, Marshalla stopped, frozen where she stood.
Silence fell upon the pair as Yansi set the table.
“How many today?” Marshalla said at last, her voice soft.
“Two,” Yansi replied, her head bowed low.
“Two?” Marshalla exclaimed as she spun round, the evening’s light reflecting off her milky eyes. “But we talked about this.”
“Don’t start, please,” Yansi replied as she too spun about.
“No, Yansi,” Marshalla insisted, “we talked about this. We agreed, no more than one a day.”
“Yes,” Yansi nodded, a tight frown upon her lips, “we talked. But you know what? Brass and I talked after that, and apparently one a day isn’t good enough for him!”
“Look, Yansi–” Marshalla began.
“No, Marshalla, no!
“But what, hunh? You want me to say no to Brass? He owns us! He owns this whole bloody district!”
Smarting, Yansi clammed shut, her nostrils flared as she glared at her mother.
“All I’m saying is,” Marshalla continued, “these girls…if I have–”
“Don’t you say it, you hear me? Don’t you bloody say it!”
“Language nothing! You’re not going back to his stables, you hear me? I don’t care if I have to feed him a thousand girls a day, you’re not going back to that bloody–!”
As Marshalla’s words echoed about them, Yansi fell silent, her gaze every bit as heated as her temper. The silence that fell upon both hung about them like a heavy cloak.
“It’s them or you, Marshalla,” Yansi said at last, her gaze dropping to her feet. “Them or you.”
With a heavy sigh, Marshalla marched forth before throwing her arms around her daughter, hugging her close. A few moments passed, then Yansi flung her arms about her mother, and in the silence that followed, they held each other tight.
But soon, they parted.
“I still can’t believe you got Brass to pay at all,” Marshalla said as they parted, a smile upon her lips. The smile was wooden, but Yansi smiled back regardless.
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “Nothing in Dunheim is free, Brass knows that better than anyone.”
With her smile gaining warmth, Marshalla patted her daughter on the shoulder before shaking her head. Sighing, she picked up the purses and pocketed them as she returned to the pot.
“Set the table and go wash up.”
Nodding, Yansi did as she was bid. A calmer silence fell upon the pair, and remained until Yansi headed for the door.
“Did you see Brogan today?” Marshalla asked.
Stopping, Yansi frowned before shaking her head. “No. Why?”
Marshalla frowned. “Brass sent for him earlier, said it was urgent. Thought you might’ve seen him when you…”
“Brogan never stays to watch,” Yansi said softly.
“I know,” Marshalla replied. “I just thought…nevermind.”
Nodding, Yansi headed for the door once more, then stopped just as she was about to walk through.
“Did they say why?”
Marshalla shook her head. “No, they just said Brogan had to come right away, that it was urgent.”
“Hrm,” Yansi pondered. “Hope he makes it for supper.”
Marshalla smirked. “No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t,” she agreed, and, chuckling, raced out of the kitchen and up to her room to prepare for supper.
It did not take her long to change, and while Marshalla had asked her to wash up, young Yansi had other ideas. As she raced into the kitchen, however, the mood within stopped her cold.
“Hey, Brogan,” she said, her eyes falling upon the muscular man sat at the kitchen table, the light of the kitchen shining off of his bald head. Before him was a mug of delicious-smelling broth, but Brogan took no notice of it, nor actually, did he notice Yansi, for his eyes were staring into the ether, his face that of a man haunted by the greatest of nightmares.
As Yansi stared at her adoptive father, a cold hand made its way up her spine. She looked over to Marshalla, who was sat at Brogan’s side, a hand upon his wrist as if comforting him.
It was then that Brogan stared at Yansi. As he saw her, his face lit up as a smile parted his lips.
“Ah, there’s my little troublemaker!” he exclaimed as he sat tall.
Grinning, Yansi hurried over to his side, holding him in a tight embrace once she reached him.
“Is all well?” she asked as they parted.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost or ten.”
“Oh it’s nothing, it’s–”
“Tell her,” Marshalla interjected. “Else she’ll hear it from one of Brass’s men.”
The cold hand returned.
“Tell me what?”
Sighing, Brogan stared at his daughter a spell before nodding at the chair beside her.
“Go on,” he said.
Keeping her peace, Yansi obeyed.
“Brass called me earlier.”
Yansi nodded. “Marshalla said.”
Brogan nodded in response. “Yeah. It’s…something’s happened to Corwil, Yansi.”
Yansi grinned in spite of her fear. “What’s the old man done this time?”
“He’s dead, girl.”
Brogan nodded as he sighed. “He and his pirates were bringing in a new shipment today, slaves and mist.”
Yansi frowned. “Slaves?”
“Well, orphans more like. Brass has been branching again, this time selling orphans to nobility, those that can’t bear children themselves, or need young ones to look after and play with their own children. Corwil was bringing in Brass’s first large shipment today, about twenty in all.”
“Twenty?” Yansi exclaimed.
“What happened, then? They sink?”
Brogan shook his head. “Oh, the ship docked alright, it docked as perfect as could be. Except nobody was alive.”
Again, Brogan nodded. “Whole crew, whole cargo, dead. I’m telling you, Yansi, never seen anything like it. Most of the crew, they were…they were ripped to shreds like a pack of animals had gotten them. And they’d fought back, for sure of it, but the only blood we found on that ship was from the dead.”
Yansi frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean something big and nasty tore them all up, something they couldn’t even scratch, and then it just up and left. Something or some…things.”
Yansi swallowed hard. “And Corwil?”
Sighing, Brogan nodded. “Him too. He had it the worst. They tore him apart slowly.”
“But…but he was a sweet old man. Pirate or no, he cared for people. His crew might’ve been a pack of right heartless bastards, but not Corwil.”
Brogan nodded. “I know, Yansi, I know. The old coot died trying to protect some of the kids on there. But they got them anyway. Except one.”
Yansi sat tall. “Wait, one survived?”
Brogan nodded. “Old Corwil shielded one with his body. Whatever killed those kids tried to get to this last one, but Corwil wouldn’t let it, fought it off with his own body. We almost didn’t see the boy ourselves, almost left him in that nightmare.”
Yansi turned from Brogan to Marshalla and back again. “How is he? Where is he? Does he know who did it?”
Brogan smiled. “He’s doing well, or as well as you can be after something like that. He was out of it when we found him. Good thing probably, not sure what would’ve happened to his mind if he saw what was around him.”
“Where is he?”
“Brass has him, and Brass is on the warpath. He’s widening the web, trying to find out whose handiwork this was. That man’s looking to go to war.”
“Damn right it’s war!” Yansi bellowed.
“Now, cool it, Yansi. No good shouting war on something like this. You didn’t see what I saw. If this is war, it’s one that Brass won’t win.
“So, you’re just going to let Corwil die for nothing?”
“No,” Brogan replied, shaking his head. “Brass thinks Corwil protected that boy for a reason, why else would he suffer so much to keep the boy safe?”
Yansi frowned. There was something else within her father’s words.
“You don’t think so?”
“I…” Brogan sighed. “This whole thing’s off, Yansi, it’s off something fierce. If Corwil died protecting the boy, why did whoever killed him not just kill the boy right after? And for that matter, why kill the children at all when they could just ransom them back to Brass? And the mist, none of it was touched, none. Whoever did this wasn’t after money, and if it’s for sport, those children make really poor sport.”
“If they’re not after money, maybe it’s something personal,” Yansi offered. “Maybe they’re trying to send Brass a message?”
Brogan shook his head. “What kind of message involves killing the children but leaving the mist untouched? The children died in the same cabin the mist was in.”
Yansi’s frown deepened. “I see what you mean.”
Brogan shook his head once more. “But you try telling Brass any of that.”
“So, what do we do?”
Brogan sighed. “Well, Brass wants Marshalla over to the boy’s side, see what she can See. I’m thinking you go as well.”
Brogan nodded. “Yeah. You know how to read people, make them trust you. Could prove useful with the boy.”
Though his words were meant as a compliment, they instead filled Yansi with a sense of vile defilement.
“You coming too?” she asked as she shrugged off the ill-feel.
Brogan shook his head. “Need to see to Corwil’s boys. Owe him that much. I’ll catch up with you soon as I’m done.”
“Come, you two,” Marshalla said as she rose abruptly. “Enough talk, time to eat.”
The supper that night was the quietest they’d ever had.
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