The liquor dripped in a steady rhythm onto the polished wooden floor as Malus walked to the desk. He leaned out over its finely polished surface, and looked down at the merchant, who was now crouching behind his chair, trying in vain to load another bolt into the large crossbow, and failing miserably at the task. He was breathing heavily, each draw of breath making an audible wheeze in his chest.
“Stand up,” Malus told him flatly, gesturing at him with his sword. The man jumped, but responded quickly, rising queasily to his feet, not making eye contact with Malus. “Now drop the crossbow,” Malus told him. Frederick complied immediately, the crossbow thudding heavily onto the carpet, the unsecured second bolt falling harmlessly out of place. The man’s shoulders heaved slightly and he stifled a sob. Malus looked him over dispassionately, and lowered his sword. “Why don’t you get yourself a drink?” he asked, pointing his weapon at the crystal tumbler on top of the desk. “I’m sure at least one of those bottles survived your savagery.”
The man nodded, gulping air and still stifling sobs. He moved to grab the tumbler from his desk. The glass slid across the desk from his shaking hand, and he had to grab it with both hands to keep it steady. He glanced quickly up at Malus, who gestured towards the side table with his sword. The man walked around the desk warily, proceeding towards the table while keeping his face to Malus. When he got to the table, he steadied himself against it with one hand, leaning heavily as he looked down at the table, now littered with broken and dripping bottles. He leaned forward, looking carefully. A disappointed look crossed his face, and he breathed out heavily.
He turned to face Malus, clearing his throat, “What I was looking for has shattered. Can I open this cabinet here?” he gestured at the small carved door in the front of the table. “I think I have something in here for the occasion.”
Malus narrowed his gaze, moving within striking distance of the merchant. “By all means do,” he said, readying himself for an amateurish attack from the merchant.
The man shook his head at Malus’ mistrust. “I’m not going to attack you,” he said wearily, “but if I’m about to die, I’d like to open this bottle.” He opened the cabinet slowly, careful to make sure that Malus could see inside. He gestured down into the cabinet. “That one there, I’ve seen sitting on for a special occasion,” he continued, reaching slowly into the cabinet for an unlabelled bottle, filled with a deep amber liquid, the neck of the bottle sealed in a deep purple coat of wax. “A bottle from the High House of Coryntor,” he explained, holding it up for Malus to see. Malus shrugged noncommittally.
The merchant chuckled nervously, using his thumbnail to break off large pieces of the sealing wax. “A bottle of dwarven spirits. And not that dreadful lamp oil they keep underneath the bar for grizzled drunks either. This spirit,” he held it up the light, looking at the cork in the bottleneck that had been hidden under the wax, “was aged for a century by the stewards of the High House in their cellars. It’s never even supposed to leave Coryntor.” He turned back to the table, eyes searching the various items for a corkscrew. He finally saw one, soaking in a puddle of clear liquor near the far edge of the table. Retrieving it, he turned back to Malus and continued, “In fact, the only way I was able to get this bottle was in a trade with dwarven . . .”
He had turned back to find Malus with his sword arm drawn back for a stabbing blow. The moment he made eye contact, Malus struck, driving the weapon straight through the merchant’s breast and out his back. The shocked merchant continued to stare into Malus’ eyes, a look of incredulity paralyzed into his expression.
“I tire of your squawking,” Malus said, pushing his hand axe back into his belt. His hand now free, he took the bottle of liquor gently from the hand of the quickly fading merchant. He jerked his sword free from the merchant’s chest, and the man collapsed to the floor, his eyes rolling back in his head.
Malus wiped off his sword blade on the merchant’s green coat and sheathed the weapon. He held the bottle up and looked at the bottom. There, molded into the glass, was the crest of the High House of the dwarven kingdom. Malus raised an eyebrow at this. Although he abstained, he knew this was an impressive trophy. He slid the bottle over his shoulder into his pack carefully.
Malus looked around the office as he made his way back over to the desk. He bent and collected the bag of gold off the floor, and most of the scattered coins as well. Continuing to look around, he thought for a moment, then walked back to the body of Frederick Story. He leaned down, and put his hand onto the man’s body, patting each pocket of his garments in turn. In the man’s right breeches’ pocket, he found a ring of forged keys, which he took. Malus straightened up and walked quickly from the office, back down the hallway towards the front of the building.
Once he reached the shattered front door, he glanced outside to ensure that the street was still clear. After he had confirmed that he was still alone, he walked down the front steps and turned back towards the double doors that lead to the warehouse floor, jingling the ring of keys as he walked. He moved in front of the doors, finding a keyhole in the middle of a steel plate bolted into the doors, housing an enormous bolt lock. He quickly moved through the selection of keys on the ring, finally finding the right fit on the fourth try. The bolt drew back with a satisfying click. Straining against the weight of one of the two doors, Malus shoved it open enough to move inside. He pushed the door shut behind him.
The inside of the warehouse was still and pitch black. Malus felt along the wall, feeling for a torch. His fingers moved across a wall sconce, and he pulled loose a torch. He fumbled for a moment in his cloak, pulling out a packet of tindersticks. Lighting one off the rough surface of his greaves, he lit the pitch-dipped torch, bringing a sphere of sputtering light to life in the cavernous warehouse.
Malus swung the torch around, revealing a rough wooden floor extending out from his position near the wall out into the darkness beyond his torchlight. He began to slowly creep across the floor, moving the torch around to see as much as he could while moving through the empty warehouse. He swung the torch near the floor from time to time, leery of traps. Considering that the merchant kept no armed guards or mercenaries of any type, he felt certain there would be traps.
About thirty paces from the entryway, Malus’ light finally shown upon something in the warehouse; a number of small wooden crates were stacked in a tidy pyramid in the middle of the floor, well away from all the walls. Malus approached the crates slowly, examining the floor at his feet for tripwires or irregularities in the floor itself. He was also wary of magical wards, but hoped that his armor would protect him from most mundane security spells. He stopped about ten feet short of the crates. They were unmarked, but the planks they were constructed of were carefully fitted to one another, denying casual observers any look at the contents inside.
Malus hesitated for a moment, studying the boxes. Whatever they contained, the crates were precious enough for Frederick to have been here alone, sleeping in his warehouse. The intelligence report had indicated that the man had dealt in valuable goods, but for a warehouse this large to only contain these few small boxes indicated their great worth, at least as Malus saw it. He intended to find out what was in them, and if they were portable enough to get out of here with.
Taking another moment to think, Malus continued to look at the cargo. After a moment he seemed to make up his mind about something. He drew one of his daggers from his belt, knelt down near the floor, and slid the dagger along the floor, hilt-first, towards the stacked crates.
About a foot from the boxes, the dagger stopped abruptly, frost crackling over its blade and leather wrapped hilt. Malus cracked a grin as he proceeded over towards the blade, confident that the cold spell that had circled the cargo had been expended on his dagger. He pulled on a leather glove as he walked forward to his dagger. He bent down and retrieved the weapon with a gloved hand, the blade and hilt thoroughly frozen. He looked at it for a moment, and carefully replaced it in a leather sheath to thaw. He then reached out for the closest crate.
An inch from the top of the crate, a white bolt of energy arced out from the box and struck his hand, surging up the length of his arm into his armor. The white electrical surge crackled over his entire armored form, sparking off into small bolts of lightning and releasing a small clap of thunder as it passed through him. Malus staggered back from the box, every muscle in his body seizing uncontrollably as the bolt passed through him. After a number of faltering steps backwards from the box, Malus toppled like a great tree, his ankles failing as he tipped backwards, crashing flat onto his back. After a brief moment of twitching, he lay still on the floor. The torch that had flown from his hand landed a few feet from him, still burning.
Malus awoke with a murderous ache behind his eyes. He blinked a few times, attempting to focus his gaze. Whoever had warded the boxes was powerful enough to ignore the magical protections that had been forged into his armor. As the world came back into focus, he saw fire. Scrambling to his feet, Malus looked around to see that the flame from his torch had spread across the wooden planks of the floor to the wall on his left. The wall was burning, and the flames were beginning to lap at the large beams that ran along the width of the ceiling. He cursed to himself as he felt to make sure his weapons were still on him. He glanced back at the crates. He hesitated for a moment. But curiosity got the best of him. He ran over to the nearest of the crates and grabbed the lid. Nothing happened. Malus grunted to himself in satisfaction at an avoided flaming death.
Straining against the thick nails that held the lid in place, Malus savagely tore off the wooden lid of the crate, revealing packing straw on the inside of the box. He shoved his hand down into the straw, feeling a cloth sack just a bit below the surface. He grabbed it and dragged it out, feeling similar cloth bags underneath the straw to the one he was taking out. The flames were now among the beams of the roof. He didn’t have long now.
Malus tore open the rawhide strap that closed the top of the bag and reached in. He withdrew his hand, opening his fingers wide to show a stack of gold coins, each almost the width of his palm, heavy in their own thickness. Malus shook the stack thoughtfully, holding his hand out of his own shadow to see the insignia stamped into the face of the top coin.
Embossed delicately into the coin’s face was the Imperial Eagle of Tribunus, its claws clutching the Scepter of Pentedexion and the Sword of Constantinius. Malus turned the coin in his fingers, its opposite face revealing the Staff of Tribune, the third of the Tribunus’ elven gods, overlaying an elaborate, delicately scrolled triangle. Malus looked up and counted the boxes, quickly drawing himself a rough figure as the roof above him began to blaze. Twenty crates, and squinting at the open one in front of him, probably twenty tied bags per crate. Seeing as how he was straining to hold this one bag aloft, he guessed from previous experiences that the bag in his hand held probably close to a thousand of the thick coins. Four hundred thousand, or there about, by his quick estimation. He strained and slung the one bag over his shoulder, lamenting that this one bag would be all he could remove before the roof came down.
The fire had illuminated the warehouse fully now, and Malus saw a small door off the back, no doubt leading into an alley between buildings. He moved as quickly as he could under his new burden. He kicked open the locked back door in a rush, moving swiftly into the alley. The building was now visibly smoking, and his time to leave without incident was shrinking rapidly. Looking down the alley, Malus saw a large chestnut brown mare, struggling in vain against her lead rope, which had been tied to a post a few steps from the door. The mare’s saddle was an elaborate work in light tan leathers, inlaid with green velvet detailwork. Malus remembered Story’s spurs, and the green of his outfit and office. Shrugging to himself, Malus approached the animal with a hand out, palm open. He patted the animal’s curved neck carefully as he undid the hitch, throwing the reins back over her head. He quickly secured the large bag of coins to the saddle horn, along with the smaller bag he’d taken from the office. Then he swung himself up into the saddle, talking to the upset animal in low, hushed tones. He popped the reins lightly, and the horse bolted, tearing out of the alley.
Malus let her run, burning out her fear of the fire in physical exertion. When she slowed a few blocks later, he steered her gently back towards Meridian Street, back to the Bloody Fist. He had many things to tell Garenol. The fire brigade bells rang out once more in the distance. Malus snorted to himself, thinking of how terrible they had made lives in that particular profession this evening.
7 - Berlin
7 years ago