“Do you have the coin?” The question hung in the air, sweetly asked but cruelly intended.
“I have it,” Tomi replied.
This was the game. The Black Tigers had not risen to the height of the Laertian underworld by allowing even the littlest fish to escape the net. Tomi was under no illusions, he was indeed the littlest fish and to survive he must feed this larger one.
“I need to keep five copper.” He said plaintively. “You understand?”
The black-clad ruffian held out his gloved hand, curling his fingers in unison towards himself, summoning the pouch to him. Tomi lifted it from his belt, nothing more than a fraying length of rope he’d found along the docks. He made a show of weighing the heavy bag in his left hand, his right hanging loosely, ready to grab the old fish knife tucked into the waist of his plants at the small of his back.
“I need to keep five copper.” His prior words echoed desperately in his head. He handed over the pouch.
The Black Tiger enforcer opened it and spilled its contents into his hand. His palm began to overflow before the bag was empty. Eyes widening, he laughed despite himself.
“Come.” He said, beckoning the youth closer.
He returned the palmful of coins to the pouch but kept one, which he held up so that it would catch the light of the early morning sun. He held the silver piece out towards Tomi who hesitated and eyed him suspiciously.
“Just take it, Tomi.” The enforcer's voice was weary. “I’m tired and want to go to bed. I’ve been walking these docks since sundown.”
“What’s the catch?” Tomi asked.
“No catch. Come see me before twilight. You're the best pickpocket on the streets, Tomi Spiritsong. I’ve got something a little more challenging in mind.”
Tomi took the coin and hurriedly concealed it within the folds of his soiled shirt and nodded an unspoken agreement to attend. Turning, he quickly ran off into the brightening sunlight. His footfalls never wavered as he hurtled around corners and down thoroughfares into the high district.
He dodged the guardsmen, charged to keep these streets clear of all save the most respectable folks. He caught disapproving looks from the linen-clad scholars, their arms full of tightly wrapped scrolls as he approached the circle of shrines that stood before the entryway to the university. He ducked into their protective ring and breathed a sigh of relief. Once he made the shrines he was safe, for the acolytes would protect him. Once his business was done it wouldn’t matter, he’d be returning to the docks anyway.
“Good morning, Tomi Spiritsong.” One of the attendants greeted him. “Have you come to visit Arcadia’s shrine?”
She wore a simple linen dress, dyed green to identify her as a servant of the Goddess of Life. The points of her ears peaked up through the strands of her wispy blonde hair. He ran his fingers through the grimy mop atop his head, revealing that his ears peaked in the same way, although not so high. They were the mere suggestion of that part of his lineage, a gift from his mother.
“Can you change this?” Tomi asked, holding up the silver piece.
“I can!” She smiled, counting out nine copper pieces and exchanging them.
Then she crossed to the small altar. Tomi had always found it to be the most interesting of the twelve. Its roots sunk deep into the earth of the hill and through some feat of magic, a solid wood slab had grown from the leafy floral base. On that smooth top was a bowl, a mouse slept lazily beneath its rim and paid no mind to the three oranges that had been left there. She gave them to Tomi also.
“Give your mother my regards.” She said, acknowledging a great tragedy.
“I will! Thank you!” Tomi turned on his heel and ran off, preparing to leave the circle and return to her. She would be waiting. He hoped she would be waiting. She had been so weak these past few days. If not for these acts of kindness and charity, he feared she’d have fled this world already.
His hurried retreat brought him into the path of a tall thin elf. His robes were a smoky gray and his hair was black, falling almost to his waist. His ears reached impossibly high, nearly clearing the top of his head. His long black hair made him look like a great spider moving along the weblike paths that crisscrossed the shrine-topped hill.
“Good morning, Tomi Spiritsong.” The elf spoke. “Today you will be blessed with a choice!” The priest motioned to the sky where the moon was still visible in the early dawn. “Infinity’s eye watches over you this day. Change is afoot. Life ebbs and flows. Join the weaving of the great pattern.”
“Good morning, Bedwyr,” Tomi said, uncomfortably. He pushed past the priest of Necra and ran off into the city.
He stopped at the baths and tried to wash the grime from his body before returning home. Visiting the nighthouse he traded an orange for a bit of incense. Shopping at the provisioner he traded an orange for a scrap of meat. His final stop was the tavern where he traded three copper for a small flask of wine and begged for a crust of bread as an afterthought.
Tired but satisfied he strolled through the now bustling streets. Sailors returned to their ships, preparing to sail. Merchants hauled their wares from their storehouses to their places of business. The doomsayers were out caterwauling on corners, the performers were dancing their jigs, both in search of coin.
He turned the corner, down the Eel Path and the familiar smell of waste and fish greeted him. He remembered how much he resented it when they were first forced to move here. But, this small place had become home. Upon reaching their apartment he decided to pay the rent first. So up he went, five he paid, and walked the slippery stone steps down to their rooms.
When he reached the bottom step the door was ajar. The hair at the back of his neck stood up and he slowly reached for the thin-bladed fish knife, sliding it from its place of concealment. He swung the door open quickly. There was no way that the hinges would not squeal and so he decided to use it to startle whoever was inside and rush them before they could recover their witts.
A dark figure bent, kneeling over his mother. Its hooded head snapped up. He lunged, his knife stabbing three times, the thin blade breaking off on the third. The figure reached out an arthritic hand, luminescent skin tracked by purple veins and gnarled with age. She scraped a short cane across the floor and steadied herself before she rose. Turning, she fished around under her robes and with a sickening sound pulled free the broken blade, dropping it to the floor.
“Necra…” Tomi breathed, in awe of the Goddess.
“Come in child.” The Crone’s voice crackled like old leaves in a fire. “You’ve only got a moment or two before we go.”
Tomi was in shock. His hands trembled and his eyes burst into tears. He scrambled to the dirty mat upon which his mother rested. Her darting eyes were open wide, attempting to see everything she could of this world before she left it. She focused for one last instant upon him and her eyes smiled before her spirit fled and she faded into death.
He turned to the Goddess, but she was gone as well. All that remained was dead flesh and emptiness. He gathered what little was valuable. It didn't take long. On a dish, he laid out the orange and the meat. Into a wooden cup, he poured the wine. Shrugging, he finished the rest himself. The incense was placed in a small bowl and lit it from the embers of their fire. Its scent was lavender. His mother had loved lavender. He arranged these final gifts, said a prayer of thanks to Necra for seeing her safely to the Sea of Infinity, and closed the door behind him as he left.
Jostling through the crowd he could feel his emotions building. He could feel the pressure of tears behind his eyes. He could feel his muscles bunching and flexing as if itching for a fight. His steps quickened and his mind was flooded with…
Sprawled upon the damp worn cobbles of the road he looked up from his back. He blinked away his confusion and saw before him a young man extending a hand. An Illionian? His dark skin at first made him appear like a shadow against the height of the noonday sun.
“You alright?” The Illionian asked. “I’m sorry. I’m a tourist here. I wasn’t looking where I was going. I am Axus.”
Tomi blinked again focusing on the hand being offered. Grasping it, he allowed himself to be hauled up by the lanky youth. He was trying to get his bearings and regain his momentum. An Illionian? He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d seen an Illionian?
“It’s alright.” He rubbed the back of his neck, stumbling unsteadily into the youth. “I’m ok.”
Pushing off from Axus’s strong chest he wobbled away. He looked back once to find the youth watching him go. Ducking into an alley, he pulled the Illionian’s money pouch from his shirt and opened it, spilling the small horde into the palm of his hand.
There were coppers, yes. But, those were the smallest portion of the coins. There was silver, gold, and what? A Kamor platinum! Even stranger, the coins were from all over the kingdoms of the West. The bulk of his coin was Garvistani, but there were Cthohric, Illionian, Laer, and even dwarven coins mixed in. Pair that with the platinum from Kamoranth and this kid could be living like a prince!
“Well, now I will.” He thought to himself.
Tomi ignored his meeting with the Black Tigers. He had visited the nighthouse, thanking them for their generosity in helping to care for his mother, informing them of her passing, and offering to repay the debt. They refused but held a vigil, in their way before the night’s business began. Since he was a little boy they had cared for him and it was clear that they would continue even after his mother’s passing. Upon leaving, he did not say goodbye but thanked each of them.
The call of the horns lured him south to the ever-raging party that became the docks after sunset. Full bands played in the streets and large crowds of sailors and dock workers celebrated the end of another day. Winding his way through the crowd, moving with the music, he noticed a larger-than-usual crowd at Old Ivor’s. The line was out the door and the bouncers were turning people away!
“Ivor’s going to make a killing tonight!” Tomi thought, swinging around to the stable yard in the rear and sneaking through the open backdoor.
“What are you doing, you sneaky little thief?” A voice playfully scolded him.
He turned and saw Margaret, Ivor’s daughter. Her red hair was glorious and her green eyes were like two emeralds. She was only a barmaid, but she was the prettiest human girl Tomi had ever seen outside the nighthouse. She had always been since they were children. She was beaming now but she never stopped moving. Bowls of food were stacked in the crook of her arm. She wheeled nimbly and darted back into the common room. He followed, grabbing an apple from the counter in passing.
The common room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The only voice came from beside the fire. It was deep and sonorous and told a tale of the evils that dwelled among the foothills of Boulderstride. The bard masterfully inspired responses from his audience, knowing just the proper phrasing, tone, or inflection to elicit oohs and ahhs, gasps of fright, or uproarious laughter. Weaving through the crowd he stopped dead in his tracks. It was the Illionian.
Tomi felt a pang of guilt. He looked up again and found the bard’s eyes staring right at him. He smiled in acknowledgment and nodded a greeting. Tomi shifted his gaze to the floor, moving slowly back into the crowd and out the backdoor. He sat heavily on the step and listened to the story, trying to decide what to do next.
“Smart.” Came that old familiar voice. “How much have you pocketed tonight?”
Tomi’s chin rose, slowly. The Black Tigers had found him. Honestly, he knew there was no way he could avoid them. But, he was hoping he might make it out of town without having to confront them.
“Sallus.” Tomi said. “Sorry, I missed our meeting. My mother…”
“We know, kid.” Sallus nodded respectfully. “Sorry for your loss. The nighthouse lost a good one tonight.” His henchmen chuckled at that.
“You’ve earned your hood, kid,” Sallus said. “Help us tonight and tomorrow you’ll wear the Black Tiger hood, be one of us.”
Tomi smiled because he knew it was expected. He would be out of town before that ever happened. Moving to rise, he felt the press of a firm hand on his shoulder. Looking up into Sallus’s face he saw the curling palm on his free hand. Loathing welled up in him, but what could he do? He took the bard’s purse from the fold of his clothes and deposited it into Sallus’s gloved hand.
It was the same drill. The same level of surprise regardless of the score. Same feigned gratitude. A pittance for his trouble.
“We’ll hit the bard after close. He’s made a killing tonight. You want your hood? Meet us out front afterward. He always takes a drink on the porch once everyone leaves.” Sallus directed.
Tomi’s mind was racing. Watching the small group fade into the shadows, their black clothes making them nearly invisible, he knew he’d be the only one people would recognize. He knew that if he didn’t help them, he’d likely be next. His resentment grew.
Tomi hated this city. He hated the Black Tigers, hated the smell of salt water and sewage, hated begging for his meal, and hated that the only family he had was the ladies of the nighthouse. And, he hated that his mother was gone.
The sounds from inside stirred him from his thoughts. He thought he saw a raven perched upon the corner of the stable’s roof. The shadow cawed and its cry echoed across the small yard, evoking the memory of Bedwyr and his words. Tomi noticed that the moon was full and Infinity’s watchful eye seemed open wide as it looked down upon him.
Steeling his resolve he turned back up the stairs. Surveying Ivor’s kitchen, he snatched the preoccupied cook's thick-bladed knife. Fleeing into the night, he circled to the shadows opposite the inn’s front door. Sinking into the shadows, he hid.
The bard finished his show well after midnight. The crowds dispersed quickly. Just as Sallus had predicted, the Illionian emerged shortly after with a tankard in his hand and sat heavily upon the porch steps. Margaret followed him. Sitting beside him she took his hand in hers and rested her head upon his shoulder. He kissed her fiery curls.
A moment later Ivor called his daughter back to work. The Illionian sat and sipped his drink. The shadows began to shift and from them emerged the Black Tigers. They wore their hoods now, strictly anonymous. As Tomi watched, they surrounded him. He listened closely but could not make out the exchange except when the Illionian laughed and rose.
There were five of them to his one but the youth strode into the middle of the street, offering them his back as he went. He laughed again as they circled him. He wore no armor and had no weapons and they had blackjacks, and brass knuckles, Sallus held his glinting blade. They pounced.
The bard had floored the first attacker with an uppercut that took everyone by surprise. The ruffian was unconscious before he hit the floor. A kick to the stomach sent another reeling but the third and fourth were too much for him to overcome. Two grabbed his arms and held him there. Sallus approached, his blade glinting in the moonlight.
Tomi looked up and the moon’s wide eye seemed to be watching intently, waiting to see what he would do. The knife in his hand felt dangerous. He thought for a moment, determined the likely outcome should he put it to use, and dropped it. Then he sprang from his shadowy corner and landed a blow directly to the back of Sallus’s head.
The Illionian whooped and broke free of his captors. Laughing all the while he began pummeling his assailants. Another was out cold before Sallus recovered his wits. He turned on his attacker and shook his head.
“Tomi Spiritsong?” He asked mockingly. “This is the end, kid.”
Sallus had made short work of the half-elf. A slash of the knife drew blood from Tomi’s upper arm and the shock allowed for his quick and efficient incapacitation.
Upon waking he was met by the oppressive light of the sun. Moving to massage his aching head found he’d been shackled. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. To his left sat the Illionian, in shackles of his own.
“You’re awake!” He smiled.
“Where are we?” Tomi groaned.
“We are traveling north towards Nycimea, I think.” He replied gleefully.
“Axus?” Tomi used his name for the first time. “Why are you so happy?”
“We are exactly where she wants us to be.” Axus shrugged.
“She who?” Tomi demanded.
“The Goddess. Necra. Change.”