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Chapter 0: It Started In A Tavern

He sat in the tavern, trying not to think. His arm rose, his lips met the tip of the old, familiar leather mug, drank, swallowed. The ale was weak and tasteless, but enough of it would do the job.

There was a light tap on the bar in front of him. Druzka, he saw, had set a bowl of stew, steaming heartily, in front of him.

“Thanks, Druzka.” he said, without looking up. There were heavy footfalls as Druzka withdrew to see to the other patrons. There were many of them. Tomorrow would be Victory’s Eve, and most folk in the city of Dunheim would be preparing for the celebrations of Victory’s Day. Some people, of course, would start celebrating early.

He enjoyed the stew, savoring its warmth and hearty flavors. That tended to be the way of things, he knew. Proper traditional dwarven cuisine tended towards meat, mushrooms, and alcohol. But bring them out of their holdfasts and put them in the city, and give their cooks access to hundreds of vegetables and spices…it might not be traditional dwarf fare, but it was very tasty.

He groped for his coin pouch, counted out two silvers by feel.

“Hah. No.” said Druzka, from halfway across the bar. “Not tonight.”

He sighed, and slipped the coins back into his pouch. His long-running attempt to pay Druzka properly had spanned bills, credit slips, long arguments, and one late-night break-in to quietly insert a few gold coins into Druzka’s till, then adjust his ledgers so the gain would not be obvious. That hadn’t worked at all, he remembered. Never try to manipulate the accounts of a dwarven businesswoman, he had learned…

“Cor! That’s an Endless Mug, that is!” called one of the other tavern-goers. “Druzka, you’re seeing this?”

“Enough, Nolan.” said Druzka quietly.

“Cor, you chased me mate Tommen out when he just wanted to show his off! Weren’t drinking from it or nothing! What makes this man so special-”

“I said enough, Nolan!”

He looked up. Nolan’s voice was curious, not angry, not yet. But he had marked him as soon as he had come in. It was the boots, of course. The sword on his back, peace-bonded and and quietly humming with magic, was an obvious tell, but plenty of bravos went about with swords enchanted to glimmer and flash, to play at being adventurers. But Nolan’s boots…if you knew what to look for, that told the whole story.

His gaze came up at the same time that Nolan’s did. Nolan had been observing his boots, as well. And his face had gone stiff, and drained of blood entirely as he met his gaze.

Godsdammit. He’d been recognized. It would be unavoidable in a few days, but he had hoped for at least enough time alone to get drunk in peace.

“Druzka. Going to take a walk. Clear my head.”

Nolan had fallen back into a crouch. His hands had vanished into his cloak, clearly clutching for knives or hidden talismans, and he only grew more tense.

He sighed to himself. Perhaps a threat, or a quiet word, or just a simple request for Nolan to keep his godsdamned mouth shut would suffice?

Probably not, he figured. Besides, from the look of things, there was about one chance in five Nolan would risk attacking first, and bring down the law of Dunheim on himself. And that would mean official attention. It would get hushed up, of course, especially now, but the hush-up would draw attention for those who knew how to look…

He left Druzka’s without incident, into the pouring rain. He sighed again, pulling up his cloak’s hood. The cool droplets were waking him up, washing away the comfortable oblivion the ale had tempted him with.

“Who was that?” asked one of Nolan’s companions.

He turned and slammed the door to the tavern shut.

It didn’t help.

Jack-o’-knives. came the whisper. He couldn’t quite tell if it was from his magically-enhanced hearing, or simply the memory of dozens of other whispers, just like it.

Jack-o’-knives. Jack-o’-shadows. Bloody Jack. Killer Jack. Savior Jack.

Well, he certainly wasn’t going to relax into an alcohol-induced slumber now. But he had spoken the truth to Druzka.

He drew a fingertip across a hidden rune in his cloak, and it (and he) shimmered into invisibility. The constant splashes and interference of the rain still left a visible outline, he knew. He also knew several dozen ways to conceal, distort, and render unnoticed that outline. His footfalls could take care of themselves, he knew. He was wearing his boots, after all.

He crouched, sent a mental command to his boots, and leapt, grabbing ahold of a gutter, then quietly pulled himself to the rooftop, listening in earnest now.

There it was. Under the omnipresent hiss of the rain, and the muffled sounds of celebration and preparation, there was the quiet, quiet crunch of window-glass, broken very carefully.

A grim smile might have played about his lips as he crouched, leapt to another rooftop, listened again. Well, if he couldn’t distract himself with drink, this might well have been the next best thing.

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