A clerk, a butler, and an orphan all struggle towards their own explanations of the world they live in.
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Madeline City is situated inside a ring of steep mountains and all but covered by the constant clouds that serve as a reminder of the dreary conditions of all who live within the walls. While the people of Bater District, Gnight District, and other less privileged areas of the city suffer by fighting, stealing, and drinking their way through life, the officers of the church execute their Prelate's orders to bring the entire city under militant, fanatical rule.
But just who is the goddess Madeline? Or rather, who was she? No longer among her people, she once brought peace, love, and prosperity to her city, but was moved to abandon them after they tarried in their allegiance to her long ago. Now the Magmenian Rebellion claims her as their champion as they strive to overthrow the church's stranglehold on the city, and the Augsburg Church cites divine duty as they scour the alleys and slums, seeking to imprison anyone who would refuse to submit to her holy law.
And so it is the innocent and the oppressed who star in this collection about a people seeking to understand the forces at work in their world.
Chapter 1 - The Beginning of It All
Tydus Garth sat in a booth in the rear of the restaurant. It was a small booth in a small restaurant named Maggie’s in the northern most area of the city; the Bater District, and he noticed just then that there was a rat lying dead under the table next to his foot.
He sighed and shifted in his seat, looking around for the hundredth time, trying to spot anyone who looked like they were trying to spot him, but all he saw were either patrons eating off the dirty tables, or the hired boy with red hair behind the counter who was ignoring the rat under his table and sneaking swigs of the sweet ale when Maggie wasn’t looking.
He leaned back onto the hard wooden surface of the booth, trying to look calm. He had no idea what this man looked like, and normally he would have never agreed to a meeting with so few details, but business had been bad the last few months, and, though he had yet to admit it to Pennington, he was getting desperate.
Tydus was a smuggler, first and foremost. Anytime that anyone needed something moved across the city without anyone else knowing, he was the man to go to. If there was one thing that he was good at, it was smuggling. Well, smuggling and shooting. He moved stolen goods, illegal goods, and sometimes even illegal goods that he had stolen, and vice versa; whatever was paying highest at the time. Though he might not have looked it, Tydus was also a businessman.
Not a very good one, not as good as Pennington was, that was sure, but a businessman nonetheless. He enjoyed setting up his own jobs, negotiating the price, delivering the goods, picking up payment; he liked the entire process of his business. Usually he would play one angle for a while – smuggling the goods. When the Laykens started paying attention to his corner of the city, he would lay low and switch to stealing, and he would continue in that work until he started attracting too much attention. In this way, he had, so far, avoided the Laykens. He shifted in his seat again, sipping only slightly on the sour ale in front of him, aware that the thought of the Laykens made him even more uncomfortable.
The Laykens were the muscle sect of the church – the law of the streets. They ran the jails, policed the citizens, and guarded the sanctuaries where the citizens came to pay tribute to the Augsburg Church. So far, both Tydus’ luck and skill had served him well, although he knew that was no reason to get lax. There were countless stories of men just like himself being dragged off by the Laykens, being taken into their secret bases, and never being heard from again. It had happened to several men he had known. At least, he assumed that was what had happened to them. One day he was doing a job with them, splitting the profits, and the next, they were nowhere to be found.
Just then Maggie caught sight of the red-haired boy putting back the jar of sweet ale after snitching a good swallow.
“How dare you, boy!” the landlady’s eyes burned into the young man’s leering face. “Get out of my place before I tan your backside redder than your hair!”
The boy made a scoffing noise and reached for the jar, ready to take another drink just to spite his boss.
Tydus knew what was coming next. From under her apron, Maggie pulled out a revolver, a six-shooter, long and heavy, like the one on Tydus’ own hip. The boy froze, his eyes fixed on the weapon.
“Get out of my place!” Maggie repeated, raising her voice and advancing on her former help.
The young man stumbled backwards, almost tripping, before turning around and fleeing through the batwing doors of the restaurant.
A few nearby patrons laughed. Maggie watched the boy run off down the street and turn the corner before returning her pistol to under her apron.
Tydus smiled to himself. He liked Maggie’s. It was close to his home, it was cheap, and the barwoman carried his favorite kind of weapon.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a man plopped down into the bench across from him.
Tydus started, almost drawing his gun before he noticed that the man wasn’t paying him any attention, but was instead looking over his shoulder at the batwing doors of Maggie’s.
Leaving a hand on the hilt of his pistol, he addressed the man quietly.
The man jerked around to face Tydus, and regarded him with an uncertainty. He had a baldhead and Tydus could see that he wore a necklace of some kind under his tattered shirt.
“Yes, I am Quentin. Quentin Marks. Are you Tydus Garth?”
The smuggler nodded, glancing around quickly, before settling back in his seat. “You being followed?”
“I was. I believe I lost them though…” The man called Quentin began to calm down. “I am sorry; my nerves are not what they used to be. You are the smuggler, correct?”
“That’s right. I hear you got a job for me?”
“Perhaps.” He was still stealing glances at the doors over his shoulder every few seconds. It made Tydus angry that the man was risking drawing attention to them.
“I’m afraid though,” Quentin continued, “that it doesn’t involve smuggling.”
Tydus narrowed his eyes and frowned at the well-spoken man. “Then what makes you think that I’d be interested?”
“I’ve looked all around Bater, and I haven’t been able to find one single soul that is willing to help me,” Quentin explained. “So I’ve began looking not only for those who do what I need done, but also to anyone I can find whose business is illegal. I understand that it has been hard to find work in your field recently?”
“A bit more difficult than usual, yes,” Tydus reluctantly confirmed. “I’m guessing that since no one wants to work with you that either you’re not paying enough or it’s too dangerous.”
“The second guess is correct.”
Tydus fell silent, going over what he had heard so far, while Quentin continued wringing his hands, eyes flying to the doors of the restaurant every time he heard it open.
“What kind of work are we talking about here?” Tydus finally asked.
The response was straightforward and prompt, so much so as to send slight shiver down Tydus’ spine, which rarely happened.
Before the smuggler could say another word, the doors of the restaurant flew open and someone shouted, “There he is!”
Quentin Marks was immediately gone, up and running for the rear of the restaurant, and Tydus was left to marvel at just how fast the man managed to move about.
He saw six men entering the restaurant, all clad in the worn, faded blue uniform of the Layken sect. Black boots pounded on the wooden floor as the churchmen hurried towards Tydus’ table, pointing long, bolt-action rifles directly at him.
The smuggler rolled out of his booth, plugging two of the Laykens in their stomachs on his way to the floor. The patrons sitting nearby screamed as the guns began going off. Tydus dove across the walkway to hide behind another booth as each of the Laykens fired a round at him.
He heard Maggie scream and fired her own gun, cursing at the Laykens for attacking her paying guests.
He jumped up from behind the booth and picked off a third and a fourth as they were reloading, noting that a fifth already lay dead, apparently victim to Maggie’s revolver. The sixth took aim at him and let off a shot as he dropped back behind the booth for a second, only to rise a moment later, his last bullet resting in the highest chamber of the cylinder.
When the man raised his revolver, the Layken knew that he didn’t have much time. He dropped his rifle and started yelling at the man, about how he would be arrested and taken away for killing Laykens, how he would be locked away for the rest of his life, how he would be punished for his crimes against the church.
None of this deterred the man with the revolver, who put a bullet into the Layken’s brain from two feet away.
Tydus Garth then flipped out the cylinder and shook the gun that had once been his father’s, letting the spent casing fall to the floor, some of them bouncing off of the nearby bodies of Laykens. The churchmen’s long-barreled weapons lay not far from their limp hands.
“Those damn filthy churchmen!” Maggie poked her head up from behind the bar. “Coming into my place like that! You better get yourself gone, sir. They’ll be more coming.”
Tydus nodded absently as he reloaded his weapon. He took his time, waiting to see if Quentin would reappear now that the danger had momentarily passed. He noticed that the Layken Chief wore a medallion around his neck. The Layken symbol was carved on the face of it; a large L surrounded by a circular wall on the otherwise smooth bronze surface of the medallion.
After a few minutes, he decided that the bald man wasn’t going to show, and that Maggie had been deprived of enough business for one day. Giving the body of the Chief a kick for good measure (and noticing that the man was dressed rather fancifully, as far as Layken Chiefs went), he turned and walked out the doors.
* * * *
He hurried down the street, putting some distance between himself and the floorboards that were stained with the blood of churchmen. The people on the street were keeping away from the recently set upon Maggie’s, and were trying to avoid the situation. After all, it was none of their business.
The citizens of Madeline City were quick to turn a blind eye to anything that looked like danger, because even though they tried their best, danger usually found them anyway. ‘Best not ask it to stay any longer,’ was a commonly used phrase not just in Bater District, but also throughout the entire city. And if people were good at studying the ground whenever shady dealing began to take place, then they were especially skilled at minding their own business when Laykens came around.
Tydus kept glancing over his shoulder occasionally as he turned off of Skillsman Road and onto Low Hat Lane. The smoke that he struggled to see through came from fires built just inside the entrances of the alleys along the road: the homeless and poor trying to stave off the cold, wrapped in whatever thin garments they could find.
As he walked, he considered the appearance of the Laykens at Maggie’s. Most of the time in the poorer districts, the sect acted as a policing force, investigating, arresting, and interrogating suspicious people. Other times, when the Magmen Rebellion provoked them, they were the army of the Augsburg Church.
Centered mainly in the eastern districts, they operated out of their network of secret bases. It was rumored that these bases were scattered all around the outskirts of the city, and that they were disguised as stores or saloons that had been closed down and boarded up. The entrances (also hidden) were supposedly always located at least a block or two away. The entrances led into underground tunnels that emerged inside the bases.
That’s what Tydus had heard. It was a rare occurrence when a prisoner was actually released from a Layken base, and all prisoners were unconscious upon arrival and departure.
It was midday as he continued down the road, pondering the few details that were known about the inner workings of the church’s most prominent eastern sect. There was almost no light remaining in the sky. Most of the sun’s rays were blocked out by either the tall structures at the center of the city (the Augsburg Church Headquarters), or the clouds that never seemed to leave the sky, or (if it was approaching dawn or dusk) the mountains that surrounded the city. It wasn’t uncommon to find the entire city lit by torches in the middle of the day, firelight to accompany the sun.
As Tydus crossed Low Hat Lane, he checked his footing for the potholes that filled the cobblestone street. He would have liked to hear more about Quentin’s dilemma – it had sounded like a good payoff – and when the Laykens made their entrance he had been assured of this matter’s importance to the church, which was good. The more the church cared, the more money must be involved. Of course, he thought again, it could be very dangerous, but what wasn’t these days? Especially in Madeline City.
* * * *
As Tydus entered Snow’s Market, an old dented bell gave a pitiful clunk.
“Penn! You here?”
There was a shuffle in the back room, behind the counter. A short man emerged, wearing a badly weathered top hat, an old suit coat, and a pair of once-fine trousers that were full of holes.
“Yes, I’m here. Did you meet with this man Quentin?”
Snow’s Market was Tydus and Pennington’s hideaway. They had both become clerks under the former owner Snow, and he had trained them in the business of shop keeping as if it were a sacred art. Tydus had never became more than someone who lifted the heavy crates in back. Pennington however, was quite gifted at the work; enough so to turn a small profit in Snow’s absence, keep the books in order, and placate the church whenever it came around for its ‘donation.’
“Well, yes and no.” Tydus made his way through the maze of tables and shelves that held only barely presentable merchandise to the counter. Hopping over it, he stood facing Pennington.
The clerk was a foot or so shorter than the smuggler and had none of the muscle of his taller companion, nor could he navigate the streets or pull the jobs like Tydus could.
“What does that mean?” he asked as he returned to the back room to finish whatever he’d been doing.
“It means before I could do any good solid business with the man, six Laykens showed up looking for him.”
“Laykens, you say?” Pennington looked at Tydus, slightly startled. “You weren’t followed back, were you?” He began walking around the counter, intending to look out the front windows. “You slipped them, right?”
“No, they didn’t follow.”
“I killed them.”
Pennington froze halfway to the windows. “You killed them?” He spun around so fast that his top hat fell off his head.
“All six of them. Well, Maggie actually killed one of them too – ”
“Six!” The clerk picked his hat off the floor and stuffed it back on his head. “Did you forget how close you were to the shop? What if the church finds out who you are?”
Tydus held up his hands in defense. “They rushed into Maggie’s obviously meaning business, and not the kind I’m looking for. They were looking for this man Quentin who was sitting across from me. It was kill them or get hauled away.”
Pennington calmed down considerably at that. “Okay, this is okay… This only means… I mean, we just need to…”
He trailed off and finally looked to Tydus.
“What does this mean?”
Tydus looked around the shop and sighed. “It means grab the most valuable stuff and let’s go.”
“Does it really? We couldn’t just lay low for a while?”
Tydus shook his head. “The Laykens will be questioning everyone they can find, including Maggie and her lot. We can’t expect them to protect us. When the Layken patrol doesn’t return to its base, they’ll send a follow-up, and once they start asking questions it’ll be the end of Snow’s Market.”
Pennington looked aghast at this, but he nodded hurriedly. “You’re right, you’re right.” He straightened the top hat on his head. “I’ll get a sack.”
They packed up all of their food first, and then all the money they had. This was the most important of their bags; a large burlap sack stuffed with small slips of paper that bore drawings of the church headquarter buildings in the center, and small numbers in the corners. Last packed was their valuable merchandise: jewelry, finer foods and clothes. Hardly anything in the Bater District could be called ‘fine,’ bit it was the best that they had, and in their neighborhood, it wasn’t too bad.
As Pennington looked around the store once more for anything of use, Tydus walked to the front windows and surveyed the street. It was a sparsely populated road, Low Hat Lane, as it usually was at that time of day: a few men hauling carts, a mother heading home from a store.
“I sure hope that you’re wrong about this situation,” Pennington called from behind the counter where he was tying the bags closed. “I was just thinking to myself the other day about how far I’ve brought this place along since Snow died, and how many times you’ve saved us with the merchandise you’ve acquired during the course of your own ventures. We run quite a tight shop, you and I.”
“I wish I was wrong too,” Tydus agreed. “I hate to think of leaving here; this is home. But I do believe that this Quentin business is going to be the end of Snow’s Market.”
“I got it all together here.” Pennington straightened up from behind the counter. “You’ll have to carry more than me, naturally, because you’re stronger…”
“Yes, yes, I know.” Tydus was about to come away from the windows to join his friend when he caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of his eye.
Coming down the street were Laykens. Ten, Tydus guessed at a glance.
“Penn, we’d better leave that stuff. Just grab the money.” He went to the door and locked it.
“What? Why?” Then Pennington saw Tydus starring out the front windows, and he understood. “They’re here already?”
Tydus nodded, backing away from the windows. “The money. Do you have it?”
“I, uh…” Pennington stammered as he tore apart the pile of bags on the floor, frantically looking for the bag in question. “Here! I have it!”
Tydus trotted back across the store, coming around behind the counter and drawing his father’s revolver. “Back door, let’s go.”
“Oh, dear,” Pennington hoisted the heavy bag of cash over one shoulder and followed the man with the gun.
As Tydus twisted the knob and open the back door, he heard the front door being pounded on.
Following the smuggler out into the alley, Pennington breathed in short, quiet gasps. “Cutting this a little close, aren’t we?”
Once they were in the alley behind the market, Tydus bent down to the sewer grate at the base of the wall and lifted it out of place. Beneath it there was ten feet of ladder that led into the gunk below. He motioned to Pennington, and the clerk held his breath as he started down into the darkness.
From the front of the store there came the noise of the door being broke down, and he slid through the hole onto the ladder, using one hand to replace the grate once he was below ground. There were shouts and cries from inside the shop, orders to search the living quarters above the store, and to double check everywhere.
He gripped the ladder, tried to ignore the scents that were quickly engulfing him, and descended to join Pennington in the sludge below.