The Shinsplitter awoke, hungover, in a prison cell. This was a common enough happenence that he was a reluctant connoisseur of the experience. This cell wafted of filth and mold, with notes of scratchy straw, and rusty metal. The hangover paired appropriately with the accommodations, bringing a throbbing pain behind the Shinsplitter’s eyes, and a sickness to his stomach. His mouth was fouled by a taste not unlike moldy tree bark, and felt almost painfully dry. The whole situation was accentuated by a loud banging on the bars of his cell.
Mornings like this reminded the Shinsplitter that he was still alive, and gently insisted that he probably shouldn’t be.
“WAKE UP FILTH!” Bellowed the guard, beating his club on the steel door. The guard was an orc, the Shinsplitter noticed, as his eyelids cracked open. Orcs rarely managed less than a bellow. The noise made the Shinsplitter’s teeth hurt. That seemed wrong. Noise should make his ears hurt, but the hangover conducted pain in fresh, unexpected ways. The Shinsplitter considered killing the Orc, then was reminded of the steel bars by another sharp clang, and considered killing himself instead.
“I’m awake. Stop clanging.” Wheezed the Shinsplitter. He patted his ragged tunic, fumbling for his pipe. Not there. They must have taken his possessions. Or he had dropped it somewhere. Or he had sold it to buy a magical pair of socks. That was the blessing and the curse of a blackout drunk. Anything could happen.
The guard unlocked the cell door. It squeaked open, sending needles through the Shinsplitter’s brain.
“SOMEONE PAID YOUR BAIL.”
The Shinsplitter cringed at the bellowing. At least it was good news making his eyes try to crawl into the back of his skull. He stood, and lurched out of the cell without another word to the guard. He was in no condition to provoke a conversation.
The guard followed him as he made his way up the familiar stone stairway of Grug’s prison. What had he done last night? It was entirely possible that he drank a mug of ale taller than he was. A meritorious accomplishment, even for a gnome. A three-foot tall mug of ale was still a three-foot tall mug of ale.
Why did there always have to be sunlight during the day?
It pierced his eyelids and beat on his head like a particularly sadistic blacksmith. The Shinsplitter dragged his adventurer’s pack towards the waiting carriage, sent by his benefactor. The carriage was shrouded in curtains, underlining it with a sense of ominous anonymity, but the Shinsplitter only saw a source of shade. He would remind himself not to vomit in the spooky carriage. He cursed under his breath as he hauled himself up into the body of the carriage. Some vehicles were designs with extra steps, and lower chassis to accommodate the smaller races. This was not one of them.
A hooded figure waited within, his face obscured by shadows. That was the type the Shinsplitter attracted. The hooded type. Either reputable persons not wanting to be seen soliciting the talents of the gnome, or those that simply didn’t show themselves in public, for reasons concerning their own reputation. The frequency of this particular garment considerably removed the aura of power and mystery for the Shinsplitter. And so before the figure could whisper the oh-so-standard greeting of deliberate formality, the Shinsplitter grabbed him by the front of his robe, and pulled him close enough to feel his dry, stinking breath.
“I don’t care who you are, or what you’re offering.” The gnome growled. “If I’m not eating greasy tavern food in the next five minutes, there is going to be serious trouble.”
The mysterious figure waited with growing impatience as the Shinsplitter finished his third plate of bacon and fried potatoes. He leaned back and let out a belch, indicating that he was finally ready to deal. The hooded figure began the speech he had been saving since the carriage, as if the intervening meal had not even occurred.
“I am Hath, here representing a very prosperous and influential employer. It is a pleasure to finally meet a man of your reputation.”
What a load of shit. The Shinsplitter knew the impression he gave people. “Pleasure” was rarely factored in.
“I assume you are familiar with the Geor Mines to the south of the city? An unwanted element has made itself present in the complex that has made it quite inconvenient for our workers. You are to clear out that presence.”
The Shinsplitter knew well of those mines. He had led a band of dwarves to recover a stolen shipment of silver from those mines. The dwarf owner of the mine, Rone Flinteye, was known to him as well. Why then, would he send some anonymous messenger to make this request? The Shinsplitter put the question out of his mind. There was one aspect of this job that concerned him far more.
“What’s the pay?” Asked the Shinsplitter. “Since you went to all the trouble of finding me, I bet you want this done quick, and you want it bad.”
The Shinsplitter caught the flicker of a smile on Hath’s shadowy featues.
“Fifteen hundred gold pieces on completion of the job. But my employer expects results before nightfall.”
It was a tempting offer. So much so that it encouraged some suspicion. How much could a silver mine possibly make in one day? No, there was some reason other than the silver. Some hidden motive for seeking out the gnome in particular for this job. The Shinsplitter decided to probe further.
“And any loot I find in the mine? I assume it’s mine.”
“Not exactly,” said Hath, “any property within the mine shall be considered to be under the ownership of my employer. Of course, if the job is done to his satisfaction, you may find his generosity surprising.”
There it was then. There was something in that mine other than silver. Some item that was worth finding the Shinsplitter to recover. And whatever it was, this “employer” wanted it soon.
This could be a problem. If an employer was obscure about their motives, and they usually were, it meant bad news for everyone else. Nonetheless, the Shinsplitter wasn’t known for taking the safe jobs. Especially when the pay was good.
“Well then, Hath,” said the Shinsplitter, “I’ll see you at nightfall.”
Little Vandal moved in an undeniable arc. There was barely any loss of momentum as its adamantine head crushed the skull of an orc, and sent his helmet flying. the Shinsplitter, staggered, recovering his balance after the mighty swing. He was overextended, but that was often the cost of fighting larger enemies. The other orc guard at the mine entrance charged toward him. But the towering brute hesitated at the last moment. He was used to fighting enemies smaller than himself, but not that much smaller. His stride faltered as he executed a clumsy downward swing. The Shinsplitter rotated his weight on his front foot, easily avoiding the attack. At the same time, he lashed out with the pointed spike on the other end of his trademark weapon.
Little Vandal was an expertly crafted hook hammer, a weapon popular among gnomes for its utility. It consisted of a hammer head and a pickaxe, mounted on opposite ends of the same haft. The special silver used in the construction of the latter made it effective at killing even exotic and mystic monsters. And of course, true to its name, the adamantine head crushed almost any other object with effortless resolution.
And now that silver pickaxe point was driving through the orc’s knee. The orc let out a howl as he dropped, until, with a grunt, the Shinsplitter brought the hammer into his face.
A pair of guards at the mine entrance, with no lookout, and no alert system to call reinforcements. They may as well have laid out a welcome mat for the gnome. Hell, any group of half-competent adventurers could have gotten past just as easily. The shinsplitter wondered if these guards had seen more than half a dozen raids before. It didn’t seem likely. He ripped the coin purses of both the orcs, and grabbed any trinkets that might be of any value. His employer had forbade any looting, but he technically wasn’t in the mine yet.
Beyond the simple metal gate the orcs were guarding was a sloping narrow tunnel, boring deep into the earth. Well guarded or not, the mine would likely provide many formidable dangers. The Shinsplitter removed a metal flask from his pack, and quaffed a mouthful of the thick brown liquid inside. He wasn’t exactly sure what the dwarf brewers called the concoction, but he knew that it got him drunk faster than anything. No sense in spoiling some good danger with sobriety.
The Shinsplitter stalked down the tunnel, silent like a tapeworm. He slowed at sight of a small glimmer of light on the floor. The broken point of a sword, or maybe a large dagger. The Shinsplitter’s eyes swept slowly back and forth. His trained senses picked out subtle details, significant only to one who had seen the aftermath of dozens of battles. The scuffs and gouges in the earth, the occasional fresh mark on a rock where an errant blade had landed, the faint coppery smell in the still air. True to their generations of animosity, the dwarves in the mine had fought the invading orcs. There were no bodies to be seen of members from either race. This was unusual. In the Shinsplitter’s experience, orcs usually left bodies as a warning. He couldn’t imagine them bring the dead deeper into the mine.
At the end of the tunnel was a platform, with pulleys to raise and lower workers, and their loads of earth and minerals. A quick inspection revealed that the thick ropes had been severed from their counterweight. Anyone who unanchored the platform would find themselves freefalling to the bottom of the shaft. Instead, the Shinsplitter leapt off the platform, leaving it to rock gently, as he clung onto the pulley ropes and began to descend. It was a long climb, and the Shinsplitter’s short arms were near to cramping by the time he reached a safe dropping distance. He let go of the rope, and the still air of the mine was suddenly rushing past him as he flew towards the ground. He landed in a confident crouch, balanced even under the weight of his pack. He took four steps and teetered dangerously, then fell on his face in an unceremonious heap. There was that dwarven drink. Reliable as ever.
The Shinsplitter pulled himself to his feet, swaying like a tree in the wind. He continued deeper, moving stealthily like a cat with an inner ear problem. He leaned against a pillar of stone to steady himself, and ended up with his face fully pressed against the cold rock. In his stillness, he heard the sound of far-off voices. More orcs. A lot more orcs.
The Shinsplitter gritted his teeth, and heaved himself upright. He unslung Little Vandal, and held the hammer firmly. He followed the voices down branching tunnels. Fortunately, the dwarves kept their operations organized. Efficient, grid-like mine shafts, to extract the most mineral from every cubic inch of the earth. The shinsplitter wouldn’t get lost in any winding labyrinths down here. For that reason, he know there was something out of the ordinary when he came across a fresh tunnel that deviated at a sharp angle, and zigzagged off course. He followed it to an open cavern, where orcs and dwarves were digging side-by-side.
With some effort, the Shinsplitter made his eyes focus. No, this wasn’t a cavern, it was a room of some sort, only partially excavated from the earth. Its ancient brickwork was off kilter, as if the entire room was at a slant. It took a considerable effort to confirm that this wasn’t just an alcohol-induced effect. The bricks were also embossed with a spreading pattern of runes, made all the more alien in the flickering lantern light. The miners were digging away at the earthen floor and walls, apparently trying to find the boundaries of this chamber they had uncovered.
The Shinsplitter sank low, keeping to the shadows. He scanned the room for any signs of hostility. There were none. Dwarves and orcs had generations of racial animosity, but there was no visible tension between the workers, and no apparent coercion, no slavemasters to facilitate the digging or manage the workers. The Shinsplitter rocked backward on his heels. In his drunken state, he felt that he had missed some crucial detail of this mission, though he would probably have felt the same sober. He turned, and stumbled back in the direction he came. Time to find some fucking answers.
Rone Flinteye leafed through the ledger for the seventh time that day. At this rate, there was no way that the silver would last until the end of the project. Even after he dismissed his dwarven ironguard in favor of cheap orc mercenaries, even after he sent said mercenaries to expedite the excavation, there was no way to finish the dig before his funds were exhausted. Excepting, of course, that the raiding parties would seize control of the mine.
Flinteye slammed the ledger shut in frustration, the chords in his neck twitching as he ground his teeth. Just what was he even trying to uncover, and why had they killed so many of his men trying to take it? He knew he couldn’t ignore the ancient chamber that had been unearthed in his mine, especially since droves of bandits and mercenaries began to attack so shortly after it had been discovered. It fell on him to protect whatever it was that he had come upon, and it was stretching his resources to the breaking point.
Also breaking was Flinteye’s office door, which crashed down under the weight of Little Vandal.
The Shinplitter strode into the room, crushing fragments of wood under his boots. Flinteye scrambled away, knocking his chair over in the process.
“What do you want?” the dwarf growled, trying to recover some composure. “I paid you in full for the last job, didn’t I?”
“Calm the fuck down, Rone.” Slurred the Shinsplitter. That’s just how I enter a room. And I’m not here to smash you up, just want to know why in the hells there are a bunch of orcs working in your mine.”
“Here in Grug, the rules of the outside world hold no sway. It’s the city of outcasts. People who don’t care if you’re dwarf, elf, goblin, orc, or gnoll, only that you have coin to pay. I hired orcs because they do the work, and they hold their own in a fight.”
“Well that’s all probably very touching,” said the Shinsplitter, “but the way I heard it, I’m supposed to be removing an unwanted element from the mine. What the hell am I supposed to think when all I find is your workers?”
A dark look crossed Flinteye’s face. “You were in the mine?”
That confirmed the Shinsplitter’s suspicion. Flinteye was not his employer. He was his target. An obstacle in his way.
The Shinsplitter grinned. “Well, it seems I had the wrong idea about the unwanted elements. Tell me Flinteye, how much do you value your worker’s lives?”
The dwarf stiffened. He remembered the dagger sheathed in his boot. He shifted slightly, to put his heavy wooden desk between himself and the Shinsplitter.
The Shinsplitter continued. “Here I was all ready to march in and clear out all the monsters in the place, but now I’ve got a much better idea. You save me the trouble. Send all your workers home, and keep them home. Alternately…” He shifted Little Vandal in his grip. “… You could try to stop me.”
With a quickness that belied the weight of the hammer, the Shinsplitter swung down, shattering the wooden desk. The adamantine head of the weapon crashed through the heavy wood, as if the splintering oak offered no resistance whatsoever.
Flinteye froze in place, his hand halfway to the dagger. Without the furniture obstructing his movement, his intent was plain to the Shinsplitter. The gnome paid no notice of the subterfuge, and instead deliberately looked over the results of Little Vandal’s destructive arc.
“So, do we have a deal then?”
Though Flinteye’s survival instincts screamed for him to accept, his dwarven stubbornness got the better of him. He brandished the dagger, leveling it at the gnome’s head.
“Go near my mine again, and I’ll gut you like a pig.”
The Shinsplitter easily heaved his hammer across his shoulders. “Fine, I didn’t think you’d want to clear out. What’s your counter offer then? My current employer is offering two thousand. Not an easy number to beat.”
He had padded the actual number just a bit. After all, how would Flinteye’s business survive if he didn’t know how to stay competitive?
Flinteye sputtered at the gnome’s lack of decency. A moment ago, he had threatened his life, and now he was selling his services. Putting a price on his loyalty as easily as one would pawn a dented breastplate.
The dwarf glanced from his dagger to the massive hammer looming before him. Bluntly aware of its heavy presence, he blurted the only worthwhile payment he could offer. “The thing we’re digging for. The thing your employer wants so badly. It’s yours, but only if you make the raids stop.
“Think about it, it should be more than enough, by way of payment. Whatever it is, someone is willing to pay a lot more than two thousand for it.”
It was a desperate play. Whatever it was that Flinteye was protecting, it would probably be safer in the hands of the gnome. Knowing him, he would most likely break it, either unintentionally, or for fun.
The Shinsplitter grinned. “Just what I wanted to hear.”
He held the ancient crown lazily, dangling it on his forefinger as he waited for Hath to return. It had been bothersome riding back and forth between the mine and the city so many times. Once to purchase a geomancy scroll, which had cost him almost as much as Hath had offered for completion of the job, and once more to meet the shadowy messenger with the crown that the scroll had unearthed.
The sun slipped below the horizon, and the dim of twilight shrouded the south wall of Grug and its surrounding grassland. The Shinsplitter lit his pipe with a match. The pipe had been stowed in his pack before his belongings had been confiscated by the city guard. It took a minute of digging through its disorganized contents before he found the oversized vessel. He fingered the stem, which was as thick around as his thumb, as he exhaled a pungent puff of dark grey. It was a relief that the pipe had not been lost. It had saved his life more times than he could count.
The Shinsplitter glanced at his prize for what must have been the hundredth time. The stone crown was inscribed with a pattern of runes closely matching those of the surrounding chamber. Except these runes faintly pulsed with a glowing red light, fading and flaring like the flames of a dying civilization. This had to be the item that Hath’s employer wanted so badly. The item he would deal with the least-reputable adventurer in Grug to get.
Hath’s carriage approached, flanked by half a dozen armored thugs on horseback. They surrounded the gnome menacingly as the carriage pulled to a stop. Hath emerged. He leveled an even glance at the crown, his expression unchanging.
“I thought we agreed to no looting.”
“I just thought I’d bring this particular object to you in person. It is the reason you hired me, isn’t it?” Said the Shinsplitter.
“Very well, give it to me.”
To punctuate the command, the thugs raised crossbows, poised to perforate the Shinsplitter if he had any other ideas.
“And what happens when I do? You’ll hand over the money, and these imposing gentlemen put their weapons down? Wouldn’t that be disappointing? They went to all the trouble of loading them and everything.”
Hath barked a short command. “Bring it.” The carriage driver reached behind his seat, and with some effort, raised a small chest, heavy with the promise of wealth.
“Well Hath,” the Shinsplitter said, “you made the deal, but it looks like you’re not in the position to pay me. I guess I’ll have to give the crown to your driver.” With that, he flung the stone crown at the driver, forcing him to drop the chest. Gold coins spilled out onto the grass as the chest’s hinges burst against the ground. The thugs turned as one, momentarily distracted by the sight of such lucre. It was as much as the Shinplitter needed to click the stem free from his pipe, and produce from the wide barrel a wand of invisibility. A quick wave, and a few memorized words of arcane gibberish, and the gnome was gone from sight.
That would throw them off balance. The invisibility wouldn’t last for long, so it would be vital that the Shinspliter cause as much havoc and confusion as possible before before he was revealed. As the thugs scanned their surroundings, looking for any hint of the gnome, he uncoiled a rope from his pack, and snuck behind one of the horses. He tied one end around a hoof, then dashed in a wide circle, careful to not kick up any earth.
He stepped back from his work. Unbeknownst to the riders, their horses had a loop of invisible hemp wrapping around of their legs. From here, it would be like knocking down some kinda thing all tied together with rope.
The Shinsplitter charged at the nearest horseman. He appeared out of thin air, just as he leapt, and connected Little Vandal with the thug’s helmet. The loud ringing, coupled with the sudden appearance of an angry, screaming gnome, caused the horses to scatter in all directions, or it would, had they not all stumbled over the rope the Shinsplitter had quickly arranged. Riders spilled left and right from their mounts. In a heartbeat, the Shinsplitter was above the two closest, arcing his hammer left and right, delivering a pair of crushing deathblows.
The Shinsplitter reveled. Not just in the bloodshed, but in the power he wielded. Six horsemen, who were so recently towering above him on their mounts were now dead, or struggling on the ground like worms. With a primal war cry that sprayed flecks of froth from the corners of his mouth, he flung himself at the remaining thugs.
In his battle fury, he did not even realize that Hath had calmly stepped into the carriage, and directed the driver back towards the city. Nor did his thoughts return to the crown, now in possession of the shadowy man.
The glowing crown seemed to thrum with each pulse of the calamitous red runes. Hath slowly turned it over in his hands, examining each symbol with a deliberate, lingering eye. So intent was his focus, that the edges of his vision ebbed slightly into darkness. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, did the world darken before him, until the only sight remaining was the glowing red runes, made all the more defined by the lack of all else.
Hath saw a vision. The desert to the west blowing its dry winds over the rest of the land, until only dust remained. The clouds in the sky replaced by sandstorms and relentless sun. The rulers of the land dying, unable to stop this calamity despite all their mortal powers. Sand rushing over their faces, drying and buffeting their flesh, until only withered skeletons remained, wearing their garish gold crowns.
Hath glanced up from the crown, his hands still. And though he rarely allowed emotion to show plainly on his face, Hath smiled.