They called it the Pathless County because feet tread the ground there so rarely that no trail could be beaten. The Covenant Tree that once stood upon the Silverflame Mine marked it as godless country, scarred by earth and sky and then abandoned by the spirits of both. The White-Bone trees prayed with their branches palm up against a ceiling of dark clouds.
Warren Prison sat there. In the highest tower that was once the High Warden’s office was Share, him of the milky eye and worm-eaten face. A mass of scar bulged from the side of his neck. His chainmail rattled as he spoke to the prisoners that knelt in front of him.
They were fighters, or had discovered they were recently. Wounds and bruises coloured their skin, but each of them was victorious and alive. One by one, their murmured their fealty, no other options left to them. One by one, they arose at the touch of Share’s hand and felt his teeth upon their necks, and tasted the salt of his blood in turn.
Their wounds healed. Their arms grew strong. Beneath the fresh-milled stone of Warren, deep in the caves there, beneath the roosts of the Man-Bats… laughter could be heard: high in pitch, ancient in tone, and joyful at the cost in blood.
Kunail Murai grinned, baring his teeth confidently. The sweet blood of the Silk Street ladies had cost him much in gold, but it had afforded him a sense of calm and some illusion of normalcy. He felt blood running in him, even if it wasn't his, like fresh rain down a dry riverbed. He even had his old friend Constant at his side, laughing at the old stories! And hot, two-thousand-year-old Elven whiskey pouring down his throat. Animae surround, he hadn't felt so good since… Since…
He pushed the thoughts away. He was here! Now! In the Knife-Ear Saloon, his cup overfilling and his heart fit to burst as his comrades, old and new, toasted each other into a human-like stupor. Let the War haunt some other elf this day. Leave Rivenwood to the ghosts, Count Heartless to the Veil, and the haunts of Warren to the dark lady that rules there. Tonight, he was well and truly drunk.
Kunail kept his hand on the sandstone walls of Dunish as Jin led them to the site of his most recent misfortune. It wasn't that Kunail was afraid of stumbling that he kept his hand upon the walls. No elf in a hundred long lifetimes had the grace of Kunail Murai! Kunail Murai, who had once tracked a polar bear across twenty leagues of the frozen tundra of Aëleoreth! It was simply that he had never felt stone hold so much heat for so long. It was hours after the sun of Dunish had set, and the sandstone was still hot under the palm of his hand as his feet shuffled off-rhythm.
Jin and the Con Man, whatever name he had taken on now, had gone into the toy shop. Rather than continue to drunkenly banter with Nakk, Kunail examined the area, hoping to track the Unwashed to where they had gone to ground. His keen eyes wide open, he found the blood of the injured Unwashed, though to be honest, it wasn't his eyes that led him to the trail of blood. He felt his throat close. The moon appeared from behind the clouds. The night was cold and clean, and his heart was not beating at all.
This Toymaker really had a bone to pick with Kunail, which was strange because human women – especially human women as beautiful as this Ana – were usually such fans of Kunail, who was bright of eye and long of hair. With the fresh whore's blood in him, he looked as close to his living self as he had in months. But still, he could see in her eyes a fervent hatred of the thing he had become, as she pointed her crossbow accusingly at each of them in turn.
"It's your fault Jin!" Ana hissed. "You're the reason Dunish is in such a state of misery and ruin. And I didn't believe when I heard you were associating with a blood drinking demon, but here he is!"
"I think he prefers to be called elf," replied Jin.
"I prefer to be called Kunail," the elf said.
There was a period of unproductive name-calling, but eventually, they won Ana over to their side. Well, she became willing to talk to them without a crossbow loaded and drawn.
"Fine," Ana sighed. "You wanna help? You want to get the Unwashed off my back? I'll give you the address of their headquarters. But you have to do something else for me."
Jin perked up. "Name it. Anything."
Ana gave them all a sidelong glance. "There’s a massive party tomorrow night. Almost all the important Unwashed are going to be there. Someone there has an artifact called the Necklace of the Nameless Queen… steal it for me.”
Kunail saw the Con Man's eyes go wide, as if remembering something from the distant past. Knowing that randy bastard, Kunail thought, the Nameless Queen was probably his childhood sweetheart.
"Listen," Kunail drawled, trying to keep the drink out of his voice, "You have my solemn vow – and maybe you don't care about my solemn vow because I'm a vampire – but look, we promise these Unwashed thugs will never hassle you again. And then you and Jin can go back to being all friendly-friendly."
"Wait," the Con Man paused. "How exactly does she know Kunail is a vampire?"
"Saben told me," Ana answered. "He saw you fighting, as comrades, upon the battlefield at Trapis."
"Saben…?" the Con Man asked.
Kunail wrinkled his brow. "Is that… the man in the armor, with the horse, and the Symphony for the Dead move thing, that you dueled?"
Ana narrowed her eyes. "Really, Jin? You say you'd trust these men with your life, but you don't even tell them about your family?"
Kunail nodded. "He's very secretive," he whispered, to everyone, but looked pointedly at Jin.
"He's my adopted brother," Jin admitted. "He tried to kill me at Trapis . I don't know why he was working for Count Heartless."
"You need to be more talkative," said Nakk.
"He's very secretive," Kunail whispered, again, to everyone. "He has a lot of emotional walls."
"To be fair," Jin argued, "None of you ask me many questions."
“Hey,” Nakk’s face lit up. “Do you know any funny stories about Jin?”
In the end, Kunail was happy that they decided to stay in the Toymaker's shop for the night. Sure, they were supposed to be protecting Ana from the Unwashed, but to be honest, the ancient Elven whiskey was leaking out of him and he could feel the edges of the hangover that had been hidden inside the liquor. They would help Jin's friend. They would find this Krev the Unclean, too, if he was at the party.
If Kunail could not kill Count Heartless, nor hate him, then there were plenty of souls left that deserved the darkness that follows the twang of his bowstring.
The next day came, and Kunail tracked the scent of blood and desperation across Dunish to the Basilica of the Sun. It was easy, for was he not Kunail? The elf who had once tracked a pair of polar bears fifty leagues across Aëleoreth in the heart of a blizzard! What was a man to a hunter such as Kunail?
The Basilica of the Sun looked decrepit, if it had not been pilled with worshippers. The stained glass had been ripped out, the chandeliers stripped of crystal. Once covered ensnared in the trappings of wealth, anything of worth had now been pawned away by the Unwashed to leave only high wooden beams and a clay tiled roof. They stood outside its grand entrance, pulling their Dunish disguises over their heads, drawing the veils across their faces as they came up with a plan: Distract the priest. Keep a lookout for trouble. Find the Unwashed cretin who had been extorting Ana, and silence him.
But before they went in, Kunail tapped Jin on the shoulder. “Wait,” he asked. “What did she mean, that it’s your fault? That you’re the cause of this city’s misery and ruin?”
“Uhh…” said Jin. “You know how the King is dead, and they can’t pick a new one without the Corona Crown, the Sandwyrm Sword, and the Lute of the Oasis?”
Kunail narrowed his eyes. “Yes?”
Jin coughed, and cleared his throat. “I may have been the thief who stole all those things.”
All four of them considered that in silence for a moment.
“You need to be more talkative,” Nakk said.
The deed was done. Kunail wiped the Unwashed’s blood from his pale face as his friends took off their Dunish wear and resumed their normal clothes, save for Nakk, who struggled into his Elvish disguise again. The Con Man fussed about Nakk’s ears, making sure the knuckler was disguised properly.
Kunail marveled at just how much he did not know about the Con Man. He had watched the chameleon hold his own in a conversation with Brother Calvin as they walked from shrine to shrine, debating the virtues of New Methodist Ancestry versus Orthodox Ancestry. He must have been a priest in an old con, or another life, Kunail thought. With the old priest distracted, Jin and Kunail had been able to creep into the priest’s inner quarters and kill the second of three Unwashed extortionists, without alerting anyone. Nakk, keeping lookout at a familiar shrine – Kovir the Stalwart – had managed to alert everyone of approaching Unwashed. They escaped with only a small encounter, where the Con Man was forced to give away Annish Franca’s jade necklace.
Now, they faced a new dilemma – they had to return to the Basilica of the Sun and take Brother Calvin up on his offer the previous day, and join the ranks of the Unwashed.
It was almost too easy. The Unwashed were growing, and hungry new foot soldiers in their revolution against the nobility. Brother Calvin swore them in, their hands over their hearts. He led them in oath: to protect the poor, liberate wealth, and raise the common man to his feet. Finally, he bestowed an amulet of crossed twigs tied with twine around each of their necks.
“You have good timing,” Calvin purred. “There is a great celebration tonight of our recent triumphs. You may join us at the Bath House, our headquarters.”
“Why a bath house?” the Con Man asked.
“For the irony!” Brother Calvin declared.
The Unwashed Bath House was three stories tall and they had heard the music and shouting from two blocks away. When the door woman let them in, her greasy black hands checking each of their amulets, the first thing that hit each of them was the smell. Dried shit and garbage water, piss and semen and sweat in a wall of smells so thick and powerful it half knocked Kunail off his feet.
But there was true revelry here, too. Kegs of ale stacked five high, goblets of wood and pewter and crystal sloshing wine and music – the music! The crowds were packed shoulder to shoulder, so the musicians stood upon wooden boards carried by a sea of hands. The fiddler, horner player and drummer circled the party from corner to corner, crowd surfing on their shifting makeshift stage.
And high above the crowd, at the balcony of the third floor… they spotted a familiar figure. A dark skinned man with corn rows – Stalk! The man from Warren prison, whose escape plan they had hijacked… whose men they had found slaughtered by the Gorons of the Pathless County. Around his neck he wore the Neckless of the Nameless Queen, bloodred gems beset by sharp bone shards.
“Okay,” Jin said. “That’s what we’re here to steal.”
“The Necklace of the Nameless Queen,” the Con Man remembered. “One of my wives studied that, once. She was an anthropologist.”
Kunail shouted over the music. “But while we’re here, we should see what we can do to dismantle Krev’s organization.”
Jin reminded them of the Toymaker’s briefing: “There are three of Krev’s captains here. One of them plays cards, one of them looks like a kid, and the other is the muscle: tall as a half-giant and twice as strong.”
The Con Man’s eyes sparkled as he looked across the sea of undulating, unwashed bodies. “You mean, that big woman over there?”
Fuscari was six feet tall and was holding a full keg above her head with one arm, sloshing beer into her gullet. She slammed it down to great cheers, wiping her square jaw with a massive hand. All around her, her troops toasted their captain.
The Con Man – or Andrew Barrington, as he would say – motioned for Nakk to follow. “Classic con. Fixed fight. Arm wrestle.
“Did you say arm wrestle?” Nakk asked.
It didn’t take long for Andrew Barrington to get the crowd hyped up for a fight, nor to convince Fuscari to fight her Elven challenger. Nakk, in his Elvish clothing, stepped into the ring as Andrew Barrington announced him: “From the far flung fen of Elvendom… The amazing – ” He paused, then grinned. “_Florp M’Gorp!”
Kunail cringed, but made his bets anyway.
Nakk defeated Fuscari in so spectacular a fashion that the floor had cracked beneath the shattered table. Having endeared themselves to Fuscari – Nakk most of all – they ascended to the second level of the Bath House.
Perfumes masked the signature smell of the Unwashed, and the higher ranking Unwashed here wore their intentionally ripped clothes with an air of dignity. “Aha!” declared Kunail. “Even if this supposedly egalitarian organization, there is still stratifying!”
Fuscari led them to a man playing solitaire with a deck of playing cards in a dark corner. They learned this was Krev the Unclean’s Master of Whispers, who commanded the servants, cooks and cleaners that filled the halls and houses of the very nobility they sought to overthrow… An overthrow that awaited only one more thing.
“For I am Kunail! I once tracked a polar bear for a hundred leagues across the frozen tundra of Aëleoreth, piss drunk and bare footed as a blizzard stormed around me! And that,” the elf declared, “is why you should promote us to the upper echelon of the Unwashed, and task us to track the woman who stole the Dunish Sword.”
Nakk nodded. “Floor McGorrity agree.”
“Very well,” the Whisperer drawled, as the ten of diamonds in his hand became an ace of spades. “Follow me… to the third level. Sammy Three-Fist will speak with you.”
Sammy Three-Fist was four hundred and fifty pounds of pure Goron muscle, and a quarter that seemed to rest in each of his massive three arms. His trapeziuses, posterior deltoids, and latissimi dorsi bulged out from his back like mountain ranges on a landscape of taut, oiled skin.
“Well met, Sammy Three-Fist,” Kunail said. “You’re a famous fighter. We’ve heard a lot about you.”
“We’re here because we’ve pledged to help you find a certain special sword,” Andrew Barrington said, “that will help you with a certain special control over this city? We want to prove our loyalty and make ourselves valuable to your organization.”
Sammy grunted. “I… have MANY men… who are looking for Sandwyrm,” he growled. “WHAT… makes you think… I need YOU?”
“Well,” Kunail grinned, “I once tracked a pack of snow bears! Two hundred leagues! Frost bitten! No food! Blind from the drink and toes black with the frost. And did I find it? Of course I found it. Did I kill them? Of course I killed them.”
“And WHO… are YOU?” Sammy snarled.
The Con Man bared his teeth in a wicked grin. “I am Andrew Barrington.”
“The silverest tongue east of Arcadia,” Kunail added.
Andrew nodded. “You already know our tracker extraordinaire, Flunail. And this…” Andrew looked at Jin. He knew that Jin had come to Warren claiming to be the greatest thief in all of Dunish. He had some inkling that the crime organizations of Dunish had bet on Jin time and time again. He knew Jin’s name carried weight.
“…is Jin,” Andrew finished. “The thief?”
“Jin the SHADE…?” Sammy asked.
“That’s me,” Jin replied sheepishly.
“JIN… of AORA’S clan?” Sammy asked. “JIN… the thief… that I HIRED… to steal the SWORD, the CROWN and the LUTE?”
“Wait, what?” Kunail and Andrew said unison.
“Ohhh,” Jin exclaimed. “So Jenny of the Stains was working for you.”
Kunail shook his head, and Andrew put his palm over his face, and they both remembered what Nakk had said to Jin: You need to be more talkative.
“Fuscari has not felt this way for many days,” the large woman breathed. “Florp M’Gorp strong, Fuscari strong. Our love will be strong.”
Nakk laid her down, the music muted by the thick oak door to their private room. “Shhhh,” he put a finger to her lips. “Relax.” He ran his metal hand up her torso, rubbing her side, watching her guard drop, her mouth dropping open and moaning in anticipation. “This is for my family,” Nakk whispered. Like a switchblade, his arm pierced her side and cut her heart in half. “Shhhh,” he said again.
A single tear ran down Fuscari’s face, then she was gone.
“If JIN the SHADE vouches for you… STRANGERS… I will accept you… Jin’s reputation is untarnished… EXCEPT the LAST time.”
“We all get boarded sometimes, Sammy,” Kunail quipped.
“You may be the missing piece… of the PUZZLE!” Sammy said. “What do you KNOW… of where Kara is?”
The Con Man waved dismissively at Sammy’s face. “I’m pretty sure the Toymaker will tell us where she is after we…” He stopped, and then his eyes went wide just as Sammy’s narrowed. One massive fist came darting at the Con Man’s neck, while another slammed into the ground.
Nakk quiet opened the door of the private room, and stepped out. He latched the door, hoping no one would find Fuscari’s body before they left the Bath House…
But that was when the ceiling cracked open from the force of Sammy’s huge punch, and collapsed his three comrades in front of him. Sammy landed thereafter, shaking the floor with his weight. The Whisperer floated down slowly beside the Goron, a fireball roaring in the palm of his hand.
“Finally,” Nakk said. “I can take these freaking elf ears off.”