The group hesitated, clustering instinctively together and peering around, almost like a single organism with five heads. Then Tallie squared her shoulders and stepped forward, toward the redheaded woman with the bottle.
“Hey there! Sorry, but—”
“Nnnnnnope,” the woman drawled, swirling the liquid about in her bottle and regarding them out of the corner of her eye. “What’s this look like, a tourist spot? You don’t know where you’re going, maybe you shouldn’t be here.”
“Well, that’s the ol’ rock and hard place, isn’t it?” Darius said with a flirtatious grin. “How can we know where we’re going if we don’t ask? If we can’t ask, how would we ever learn?”
“Okay, whoah.” The woman held up a hand, palm toward them. “I am way too sober for philosophy. Just a sec.”
She raised the bottle to her lips and tilted her head back, throat working convulsively while the group stared. In seconds she had drained the last of the liquid, and then casually tossed the bottle into the street, where it shattered loudly. In fact, there were a lot of broken bottles in the street here, mostly drifted into the gutters like jagged little snowbanks, but fragments of glass were strewn here and there across the center of the road and the sidewalks, as well. Glass Alley’s name began to make more sense.
“Hmm,” she slurred. “Nope, di’n’t help. Not int’rsted. Piss off.”
“Let’s try this again,” Jasmine said firmly. “We’re with the Thieves’ Guild.”
“Oh, really?” At this, the redhead shifted to lean against the wall with her shoulder, facing them directly. “Makes two of us. Uh, I mean four of us. Uh, six…” Squinting blearily, she held up one finger and appeared to try to count them, giving up after a few moments. “Eh. Lotta that goin’ ’round, ‘swhat I mean.”
“You’re in the Guild?” Rasha said incredulously.
“Hey, fuck you,” she replied without rancor. “Least I’ve got a tag. Eat my fuckin’ bloomers if you little shits’re more’n apprentices.”
“Prob’ly telling the truth, if she hangs out here,” Ross observed. “People don’t falsely claim to be Guild.”
“At least not twice,” Darius agreed.
Indeed, she did appear to be slightly less disreputable than anybody else nearby, aside from being drunk at this hour. Her clothing was sufficiently rumpled to have been slept in at least once, not to mention stained here and there, but seemed to be of decent quality. She also had a short cudgel hanging from a loop on her belt.
“S’risly,” said their new acquaintance, blinking with her eyelids slightly out of sync. “Maybe you should run along. ‘Bout to be some fuss an’ noise right aroun’ here.”
“Look, all we need to know is where the shop called the Finder’s Fee is,” Tallie said. “Do some newbies a favor and point in a direction, yeah?”
Suddenly the woman’s gaze sharpened, to the point of suggesting she wasn’t nearly as inebriated as she acted. “Huh. You too? Why’s that place so popular today?”
Tallie opened her mouth to answer, and at that moment the door of the shop behind them blew off its hinges.
The apprentices leaped reflexively away as the door rebounded off the wall and a man came staggering out backward, accompanied by a blast of wind. He reeled into the street, where he landed on his behind, luckily far enough out to avoid the worst of the broken glass.
“Too late,” the redhead said fatalistically, and began edging away from the whole scene.
There came a flash of reddish light from within the shop, followed by a shriek and the smell of smoke. A woman rushed out, arms covering her head, and plowed right into the man in the street, sending them both to the ground.
A moment later, a man in neat robes which made him look wildly out of place here stepped out of the shop. He wore glasses and had a faintly glowing rat-sized creature perched on his shoulder.
“I did ask nicely,” he said. “Repeatedly.”
“Hey, it’s that guy!” Darius exclaimed. “Schmidt, from the jail!”
Herschel Schwartz turned to stare at them, then blinked in surprise. “Oh. Oh! Wow, this is… I mean, fancy meeting you lot here!”
“And the coincidences keep piling up,” Rasha muttered.
“Yeah, no offense, but you look like you belong here even less than we do,” said Tallie.
“An’ that’s sayin’ somethin’,” the drunk woman muttered from a few feet away. No one acknowledged her.
“Well, I was looking for a magic shop, actually,” said Schwartz. “The local residents seem deucedly unfriendly. I don’t suppose you guys happen to know where the Finder’s Fee is?”
“Hmm.” Tallie folded her arms. “I think maybe we should talk.”
“Later,” Jasmine said curtly. “Trouble.”
The two Schwartz had blasted out of the shop were on their feet, and not looking terribly intimidated after their rough handling.
“You son of a bitch,” snarled the man, while the woman produced a pair of throwing knives from inside each sleeve.
“Honestly, I just asked for directions,” Schwartz exclaimed, the little fire-mouse on his shoulder chittering furiously. “If you don’t want to help, that’s fine, I’ll wish you good day. Do I need actually light you on fire?”
The two each took one step forward, glaring, and began spreading out as if to flank them. For a pair to attempt this on a group of six looked very odd.
“Really?” Schwartz protested. “I do? In case it wasn’t already apparent, that was not a euphemism.”
“Hush,” Jasmine murmured, positioning herself near him and slightly in front. As she spoke, Tallie, Darius, and Ross all instinctively shifted themselves to form a perimeter around the witch, leaving Rasha to scuttle somewhat belatedly behind them. “Thugs like this are cowards at heart; they shouldn’t be this aggressive toward a large group, and especially not with magic user.”
“That’s what I thought!” he said.
“She means,” said Darius, “they’re either dangerously crazy or they know something we don’t—oh. Speak of the Dark Lady.”
Feet crunched on glass shards as the half-dozen onlookers stepped forward from the alleyways and door frames in which they’d been lounging. More followed, appearing from deeper within the alleys, stepping out of just-opened doors, and in one case, climbing down from a second-story window. In contrast to the pair Schwartz had already dealt with, who were visibly furious, they mostly looked…hungry.
“Ah,” said Schwartz, dipping both hands into his pockets. “Well. This could be a problem.”
“You think?” Rasha hissed.
“I’ve faced much scarier than this,” the witch replied quietly as sixteen thugs crept forward, forming a wide semicircle around their group. “But… I mean, the force I’d have to use here… Somebody’s going to get seriously hurt.”
“Gonna be one of us if you don’t get over those hangups right now,” Tallie said curtly. “I don’t see what looks like a leader. Everybody find the biggest, meanest one you can see, and hurt ’em as loudly and messily as you can manage.”
Not all of them were even armed. Most were, with everything ranging from broken bottles and chair legs to daggers and even a couple of short swords. None of the toughs appeared to be carrying energy weapons, thankfully. They now had the apprentices and Schwartz completely encircled, and stopped. It was as if they were waiting for a signal, fingering weapons and staring.
Suddenly, Darius laughed.
“Yeah, figured it out, haven’t we?” he said, loudly and with apparent good cheer. “Somebody’s gotta go first, eh? Okay, c’mon, we don’t have all day for this. Whichever one of you heroes wants to get flame-broiled and beaten into the pavement so your buddies can have a better chance, step forward!”
Tallie barked a laugh in response, a sound that was far more caustic than Darius’s, and clearly less genuinely amused. “Rubes. It’s always the same. So brave in the pack, but every one too chickenshit to be the one to step up.”
Schwartz removed his right hand from his pocket and held it up at chest height. With a flash and a fwoosh of heated air, a fireball sprang into existence in his palm.
A couple of the encircling toughs shuffled a half-step back, glancing at their fellows. Not one retreated further than that.
Then, something about the size and shape of a bottle arced over them, tumbling end-over-end, to land in the gutter right in the middle of the open space between both groups.
A deep sound like the boom of a cathedral bell erupted, accompanied by a wall of sheer kinetic force that slammed the apprentices back against the wall and sent the thugs reeling in all directions, peppering everyone with trash and bits of glass.
“The fuck?!” Darius wheezed, having barely caught himself against the wall and avoided a tumble to the pavement. Only he and Jasmine were still on their feet, she having regained her balance and landed in a fighting crouch.
Amid the chorus of groans and curses, glass crunched under booted feet approaching from down the street.
“Oh, dear,” Schwartz murmured. “Is this as bad as I fear it is?”
“Yup,” Ross said tersely, hauling himself upright and dabbing blood from his forehead, where a fragment of glass had struck him.
Finally, the surrounding toughs began to climb to their feet and attempt to scatter away from the four figures who had just arrived.
“Freeze,” said the woman in the lead, her voice echoing unnaturally. She was instantly and universally obeyed.
The leader was flanked by two men in tailored suits, incongruous in the squalor of Glass Alley—one towering and enormously muscular, the other wiry, with an eyepatch of red leather and a coiled bullwhip hanging from his belt. A third man trailed along behind them, a tall, lean fellow wearing dark robes very much like a warlock out of a chapbook, his expression as supercilious as any nobleman’s.
Leading them, though, was a figure who wouldn’t have been immediately taken for a woman had she not spoken. She wore a blood-red hooded cape, marred by burns in several places. Under the cape was a leather trench coat dyed the same shade of deep red, and under that a completely concealing suit of armor, the color of old iron and heavily dented and scratched. It was also decorated with bulky protrusions of uncertain purpose; they looked heavy, and incorporated a few visible pipes and wires like dwarven machinery. Covering her face was a plain iron mask, its only features a pair of eye slits which glowed a cold arcane blue. She wore a broad belt made, apparently, entirely of the silver gryphon badges worn by Imperial officers. Most were charred, dented, cut, and in a few cases, partially melted. A sheathed longsword with an elaborately wrought hilt hung from her trophy belt.
“The hell is this?” Rasha whispered fiercely.
“Big trouble,” said Darius, his voice completely lacking his customary bluster.
The new arrivals came to a stop at the edge of the scene, studying the spectacle before them. Their faces were as expressionless as their leader’s mask.
“Ellis,” she said in her bizarrely resonant voice, “remind me to thank Wilhelmina, and apologize for my skepticism. That thing performs remarkably well.”
“Still not your secretary, Vanda,” said the lean man with the eyepatch.
“You’ll do,” she replied, shifting her head slightly to look directly at Schwartz and the apprentices. “All right. Who wants to explain this to me?”
“Uhh,” Schwartz began, then broke off with a grunt as Darius put an elbow into his ribs.
The huge man to the armored woman’s right cleared his throat and pointed at the man and woman whom Schwartz had thrown from the nearby shop; both had frozen at Vanda’s command in the process of rising.
“Why, if it isn’t Lord and Lady Shroomfiend,” she said, fixing her unnatural stare upon them. “Casethin’s message said I would find you two here, at least. The rest of this is an unpleasant surprise. Cass,” she added, raising her voice, “you had better still be nearby.”
“All right, all right, keep your heavy-ass pants on,” grumbled the redhead from earlier, slouching over toward them from the nearby alleyway in which she had taken shelter. “Bout time you got here, Vanda. If that boy hadn’t been some kind of caster he’d be a filleted corpse now.”
Vanda shifted her head again to look at Schwartz. “Yes, and what a loss to the world that would have been, I’m sure.”
“Excuse me?” Schwartz said, clearly affronted.
“Tarniq,” she said, ignoring him, “it’s not as if I credit you with a great deal of sense or restraint—hence this entire embarrassing spectacle—but I begin to be personally affronted by you attempting to collect the Unwary Tax in my district. I’m almost positive that I recall telling you not to.”
“I didn’t!” the man protested in a frightened squeal. “I never-we weren’t! He was actin’ all high an’ mighty, putting on airs, we was just—”
“Silence,” she said calmly, and he immediately snapped his mouth shut. “Let’s hear from what I’m sure is the only reliable witness here.”
“By that, do you mean the drunk one?” said the robed man behind her in a languid tone. Casethin made a rude gesture at him.
“While we’re young, Cass,” Vanda prompted.
“Right, well, Tarniq’s not lying; they weren’t trying to shake down the kid, at least at first. He came looking for Sparkler’s shop, asked ’em where it was, they started growling an’ yapping like mutts instead of giving a straight answer, because, well, you’ve met ’em.”
“It wasn’t like that!” Tarniq protested. “You saw, he tried to—”
Vanda calmly extended her left arm and tilted her hand upward; from the hefty gauntlet under her wrist, a long metal dart shot forth and impaled his leg through the calf, trailing a metal cable back to her arm. Tarniq broke off with a shrill scream, clutching at his leg.
“Don’t touch it,” Vanda said without inflection, and he flinched, whimpering, but obeyed. The woman with him pressed herself close to his body, wrapping an arm around his shoulder and staring up at Vanda in obvious terror.
“Holy shit,” Rasha whispered. The apprentices clustered closer together around Schwartz, those who had been cut by flying glass not even touching their wounds anymore. Even Schwartz looked rattled, now. Meesie was silent but practically vibrating with tension.
“Continue, please,” said the woman in armor.
Casethin sighed. “Right, well, they decided to get clever an’ he decided to get dumb. Shia told him this place was the shop an’ ushered him inside. I can’t absolutely swear they were gonna shake him down, but honestly…”
“Yes,” Vanda mused, turning to stare at the couple on the ground before her. “Honestly. The rest of these animals I understand,” she added, waving languidly at the surrounding thugs, several of whom flinched. “Who are these?”
“They seem to know Castypants, here,” Casethin said with a shrug. “Wrong place, wrong time thing; they weren’t expecting to meet him. Claim they’re Guild.”
“Ah, so? That makes all of this much simpler. And here I thought I was dealing with the complication of people who don’t know better than to start trouble in my district.”
“Ah, excuse me?” Schwartz said somewhat tremulously. “I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here.”
“That appears to be your problem in a nutshell,” Vanda agreed. “And now, I have to decide what to do about all this.”
“P-please,” Tarniq whimpered. Blood generously soaked his ragged trouser leg.
Vanda turned to stare at him for a silent moment, and then minutely adjusted the position of her left hand.
Lightning arced down the cable connecting her glove to the shaft of metal through his leg, and ignited into sparks and flashes of electricity limning both Tarniq and Shia, accompanied by screams of pain. It lasted for only a couple of seconds.
In the shocked aftermath, Vanda calmly pointed her right fist at the man who had broken from the group and pelted away down the street; the projectile which flew from her heavy gauntlet screamed like a firework rocket in flight—which, apparently, it was, to judge by the way it exploded upon striking him in the back. Shrieking in pain and shock, he tumbled to the street, where he at least had the presence of mind to roll about and put out the fire blazing on his jacket.
A moment later, she shifted to aim the same fist at Jasmine, who had surged forward at this. Jasmine froze, and then was pulled roughly back by Darius and Ross.
“Do you imagine,” Vanda asked Tarniq in perfect calm, “that I am so hard up for things to fill my day that I enjoy coming down here to correct your behavior? You may consider this the final expiration of my patience with you two.” There came a soft click, and the metal cable tightened. The long dart was ripped from Tarniq’s leg, prompting another scream from him, and the whole thing abruptly reeled itself back into her glove. “You will leave Glass Alley and not return.”
“Please, miss,” Shia whispered. “We’ve no place better to—”
“You have had more opportunities than you deserve to better yourselves, and I am not your caretaker. If you have not left my district by sundown, you never will. Am I understood?”
They huddled together, offering no response beyond terrified stares.
Vanda shook her head in disgust, then turned to the apprentices. “You. Explain yourselves.”
“Who do you think you are?” Jasmine snapped. She was immediately dragged bodily backward, again, by Ross and Darius, who this time tried to place themselves in front of her. She shrugged them off, glaring challengingly at Vanda.
“You must be new,” said the armored woman, a sardonic note audible in her eerie voice. “I am Ironeye by tag, and Glass Alley is mine. Any Guild activity taking place here goes through me. No sponsor would have sent you here for training, which means you lot are fooling around on your own time, and thus, dealing with you is at my discretion.”
Casethin cleared her throat loudly. “Uh, if it helps? They were lookin’ for the shop, too, an’ didn’t come here to cause trouble. When Professor an’ Missus Shit-for-brains, here, started in on their buddy, they moved to help out. Can’t fault ’em for that.”
“Mm,” Vanda mused, turning to pan her eerie stare around at the others on the ground. Most of them visibly flinched. “Fine. Which leaves…this lot. I suppose it’s not worthwhile asking what you cretins were thinking.”
“They smelled blood,” the robed man said idly, inspecting his fingernails. “Rather like sharks. Vultures. Or any other animal with starkly limited brain functions.”
“Very well, then. Since it’s such an unseasonably fine day, you can all take a little time to reflect upon your actions.”
Vanda slipped one armored hand behind her back; what she did with it was hidden by her cape, but that hand was clutching a faintly luminous blue sphere when it emerged. There were several cries and a few more people tried to run, but before they could get more than a step, she hurled it to the ground.
A blast of frigid wind erupted outward, accompanied by a dense flurry of snow, and suddenly everything in a five-foot radius was encased in a heavy coating of ice.
“Silence,” Vanda said, immediately cutting off the cries which resulted from this. Everyone nearby was, at minimum, dusted with frost; most of those nearest the point of impact, including Tarniq and Shia, found themselves physically held down by solid ice. The apprentices edged back, having been just far enough away to avoid the worst of it, though they did have to brush frost and snow off their clothes.
The armored ruler of Glass Alley took a moment to survey her handiwork in silence, then turned to leave.
“Wait!” Rasha said abruptly. “Excuse me!”
He wriggled out of the group, avoiding their grasp and ignoring their hissed warnings. Vanda paused, turned, and stared down at him in silence.
“Can you tell us where the Finder’s Fee is?” Rasha asked. “Please. Uh, ma’am.”
In the short silence which ensued, the chattering of several sets of teeth was audible.
“I mean,” Rasha said awkwardly, “I figure…if anybody knows this district, it’s you. If, um, it’s not too much trouble.”
Very slowly, she raised one arm. Everyone on the ground who had arms free ducked and covered their heads as best they could.
Vanda merely pointed up the street, however, in the opposite direction from which they had come. “About two blocks, on the other side. You want a shop with a green door and a display of bottles in the window. Don’t bother knocking; Sparkler is usually cooped up in the back with his experiments.”
With that, she turned and strode away. Her three escorts tarried for a moment to look speculatively at Rasha before following. Casethin just shook her head, slouched backward against the wall again, and pulled a silver flask from her pocket.
“Well, uh,” Schwartz said awkwardly, “So! Why are you lot looking for the Finder’s Fee?”
“Hey, here’s an idea,” Tallie said tersely, flicking her gaze across the shivering street full of thugs currently trying to pry themselves out of the ice. “Walk and talk.”
“You’re sure?” Schwartz said a few minutes later, frowning as the group proceeded down the sidewalk. “It was Jenell Covrin?”
“She said she was the Avenist Bishop’s aide,” said Tallie. “You know her?”
“Yes, I do,” he replied, his frown remaining in place. Meesie climbed atop his head, where she began soothingly trying to straighten his hair, cheeping worriedly. “I wonder if she’s the one who sent the message… There was no name, but it came though the Salyrite temple here in the city, directing me to the Finder’s Fee in Glass Alley.”
“Gotta be,” Ross grunted.
“It makes sense,” Rasha agreed. “Too many agendas going around for me to believe in coincidence. I still don’t know what the woman wants, though. It’s weird she would send us all out here without explaining her point…”
“I think we’re a bit past the point of worrying about traps, don’t you?” Darius remarked.
“I wasn’t there, granted,” said Jasmine, “but assuming you told me what happened accurately, it makes sense to me. Covrin has her angle to play, and she needs us to trust her to do it. A good start is proving her usefulness by setting us on a lead to how these dwarves are tracking us. On the other hand, this makes me leery of what she’s going to eventually want. If it were something small, she could just ask.”
“Think we’re here,” said Ross.
They straggled to a stop, studying the store in front of which they now stood. It certainly matched Vanda’s description: the wooden door was cracked and flaking, but plenty of its original green paint remained, and behind the iron bars over its display window a dusty collection of bottles was visible. There was no sign.
“All right, then,” Tallie said, cracking her knuckles. “Let’s get this crap over with as quickly as we can.”
She pulled the door open and stepped through, the others trailing in slowly after her.
A bell sounded from above the door as they entered, followed seconds later by a muffled voice from the rear of the shop. “I’m in the back! C’mon through!”
Inside, it didn’t look much like a magic shop. Alchemy, possibly, or an apothecary; the shelves all along the walls were full of bottles of various unknowable substances, and bunches of dried plants hung from the ceiling. The whole place was cluttered, disorganized, and liberally coated with dust, to the point that Rasha sneezed immediately upon entering. There was nobody present but themselves, though the voice had emerged from a door behind the counter at the far end, directly opposite the entrance.
“Guess it’s this way, then,” Tallie muttered, again leading the others. They all filed after her, around the counter and through the door, being careful not to touch anything. Aside from much of it being precariously stacked, almost everything was dusty if not actually grimy.
Behind the main room appeared to be a cleaning closet, to judge by the mops and buckets piled in one corner, and the shelves full of common household alchemical supplies along one wall. The floor was stone, with a drain set in the center. Its entrance was in one corner, with another door in the opposite corner, positioned that they couldn’t see anything past it except the lamplight streaming through.
Tallie crept closer to this, peeking around the corner.
Abruptly, the door slammed in her face, prompting her to jump backward with a squeak. At the same moment, the door to the front of the shop likewise shut itself, physically bumping Rasha forward, where the bounced off Ross.
Immediately following that, iron bars slid out of the door frames, blocking both entrances off like cell doors.
“Wait, what?” Schwartz, exclaimed, trying to spin around to look at both doors at once. On his shoulders, Meesie stood upright, fur bristling, squealing in alarm.
There came a soft crackle from nearby. Positioned among the cleaning supplies was a cobbled-together device with two small power crystals and a tangle of inscrutable wires and an inset vial of enchanting dust. As they all turned to stare at it, the crystal flickered faintly with light, and it emitted a voice.
“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”
“Okay, Rasha?” said Darius. “New plan. Let’s not ask evil overlords for directions.”