Friday, November 13, 2015

Behind Every Cover, there is a Story

The following short story was written by our own resident cover artist, Anthony Butler, whose fine art graces the cover of all of our Into the Breach series books.  The piece above is the Inquisitor cover, and its featured character is Reigbar, a tiefling inquisitor.  I hope everyone enjoys this fine bit of fiction, as IMO it is every bit as awesome as the art that inspired it.  A huge thanks to Anthony for simply being "the man with the plan."

Jeff Harris
Flying Pincushion Co-owner


Carnival time in the city of masks, they’d told him, that was when one sought secrets.

When the people donned masks to hide their faces, and the wine flowed freely and the music filled the streets, cautious folk grew prone to sharing, and loose lips spilled truth, inasmuch as they knew it. What people thought they knew, that was more valuable than what they actually knew. Stories started somewhere, after all. It was just a matter of following each vein back to the source of the corruption that had tainted it.

Someone in this city had chafed under the high temple’s rule, and was now spreading heresy and lies in the guise of the good works of Sarenrae. Riegbar’s sacred duty was to hunt them down, to purify the corrupted words that he’d heard so many of the clergy spreading from their pulpits. The common folk were weak, and the sermons seductive, corrupting the sacred songs, twisting a word here, a phrase there. Wickedness and sin, invited in, because someone had made them welcome. He’d see the clergy burn, if needs must. Infection must be burnt to prevent it from spreading and returning.

But before the corruption could be cleansed, Riegbar needed answers, needed stories, names and tales of deeds. The carnival was in full swing now, the red moon high and large in the sky, every the street flooded with song and revelry and torchlight, crowds brightly-costumed in jewel-toned silks and elaborate masks, when they could afford them, though more often the silks were cheaply dyed cotton and the masks simple papier-mache. He’d settled for somewhere in between with his disguise, trading in the tattered burlap pilgrim’s cloak for black cotton printed with gold, a popular choice as the black dye was less likely to betray its poor quality. The masks were decent ones, but the selling point had been the large, elaborate ram’s horns, under which he could conceal his own.

Suitably masked and cloaked, with two additional masks hidden under his cape should he need a disguise, Riebgar slipped down from the tiny room he’d rented and threaded his way into the crowd, another mask in a sea of frozen faces.

* * *

Two hours later, and Riegbar had yet to find a satisfactory clue. Either the wine wasn’t flowing as freely as he’d have thought, or else everyone in the crowd was far better at holding their liquor and their counsel than he’d prefer. He’d already had to change his mask once, when one masked woman became just a touch too curious about his purpose; he recognized her voice and build from a sermon, she was one of the clergy. Certainly, someone had followed him through a few streets, though he’d lost his pursuant. There was no sense in pursuing that lead, she’d have grown suspicious now, perhaps even have alerted a few others. Riegbar cursed himself, dragging one claw across his palm as a chastisement for his foolishness. If he’d been more careful, perhaps. Plied her with more wine first. But he’d been desperate, after a fruitless search, and grown hasty.

Surely, someone knew. He whispered prayers now, begging for some divine intervention, something to guide him, to direct his search so that he might do the work needed to purify the flock.

Overhead, a hawk cried out. Its call was unusually melodious.

Around him, the crowd shifted; once joyous and unrestrained, singing bawdy songs and laughing, now, there were whispers.

Riegbar inserted himself into a nearby cluster to eavesdrop; one speaker, a half-orc by her build, he guessed, speaking in the strange accent of the city, was trying to persuade her companion not to visit...a fortuneteller?

“It’s not worth it,” the half-orc hissed, clutching her companion’s wrist tightly, her greyish hand dwarfing the dainty wrist; elven blood, perhaps, the movements were correct.

“But they say that la strega buona knows everything,

“And that she exacts a dear price for her knowledge, Christina! Ezio isn’t worth it, he’s vile!” The half-orc grew angrier. “I shan’t follow you! If you intend to go into that alley, you go alone! ” she insisted, stamping her foot down. “It is madness!”

“I don’t care! I must know!” Wrenching her wrist from the half-orc’s grip, the elf took off into the crowd, her pastel cloak vibrant against the richer tones favoured by the others.

Stupida!” The half-orc wailed, throwing up her hands. “She’ll regret this!” She kept looking over to her companion, wavering in her vow not to follow.

“Beg pardon,” Riegbar saw his chance now, and swooped in. “I couldn’t help overhear, perhaps I could retrieve your friend for you?”

He’d follow the elf to the fortuneteller and convince her to turn back, and then interrogate this woman. The bluster of prices and ominous threats was just a selling tool, advertising to enhance her mystique. Riegbar had encountered this type before, common rogues with an ear for gossip and a flair for the dramatic. He’d have her information by the end of the night, and perhaps this would be the answer to his prayers.

With the half-orc lady’s babbled blessings still ringing in his ears, Riegbar set out in pursuit, putting on a valiant show of struggling against the crowd for her sakes, at least until he was out of sight. The elf, it seemed, faced even more of a challenge than he did, for Riegbar was soon within a few paces of her. From here, he could see her ears; too long and fine to be a half-elf, pureblooded, then. Surprising that she’d had the strength to break the half-orc woman’s grip, but then perhaps the half-orc had not wished to hurt her, and so had held back.

Quite suddenly, someone bumped into Riegbar, spinning him about and knocking him to the ground. He fought to pull himself back to his feet, ignoring the protests of his assailant, who quickly faded into the masses. There, he saw a hand, gloved in silk beautifully embroidered with a pattern of figs, reaching out to offer him aid, which he gladly accepted. His rescuer spoke to him, but he ignored it; over her shoulder, through the figs branches which adorned her mask, Riegbar could see the elf he sought. With mumbled thanks to the woman, he pushed past her, diving into the crowd again. She’d worn an almost absurd amount of perfume, he could smell it even though the mask covered his face, rosemary blended with something cooler, sweeter, like the salve used to tend to burns. It invaded his nostrils, though not the scent was not unwelcome; certainly, it was preferable to sour wine and too many bodies packed together under stifling cloaks.

The elf had turned, down a side street so small that had she not been wearing such a brightly coloured cloak, Riegbar would have never seen her. Riegbar did the shoving now, desperate not to lose her in the alleyway, ducking underneath a lazy fist swung at him by a man wearing a wolf’s mask and a scarlet cloak, until he reached the archway.

The elf was gone.

Riegbar began to run down the alley, searching for some hint of her trace. There were no side streets, yet she’d vanished, as if by magic. As he turned a corner, he caught a glimpse of a pale pink cloak, and beyond it light; too dim to be torches, a lantern, perhaps. Maybe this was the fortuneteller he sought out, and perhaps the elf had just inexplicably decided to run to her.

Too late to send her back to her friend before she met the fortuneteller, it seemed, but maybe he could discourage her from speaking to the charlatan, dramatically rip off his mask to reveal his horns and fiery, slit-pupiled eyes, terrify her into fleeing --

“You are a determined one, aren’t you?”

The woman who spoke was not the elf; her voice, it was richer, deeper, and strangest of all, familiar. Riegbar had heard that voice, or one which sounded much like it. He’d found his way into some sort of cul-de-sac, lit by a dozen or so lanterns, their shades decorated with cut paper. Strange figures danced in the candlelight, reaching down to caress the circle of chairs, the silks draped over every surface. Someone had taken some care in transforming what should have been a filthy back alley into something else, luxurious and sinister. There were braziers too, taking the chill off of the cool night, filling the air with the scent of sage.

“I’d thought you’d lost my friend for a moment, back there,” The woman, the fortuneteller he sought, Riegbar supposed, reclined across a bench, draped in black velvet so deep and rich it put his own cloak to shame. She too wore a mask, a simple female face, painted in red and gold, and adorned with gold braid and a spray of crimson feathers. Her mask was porcelain, however, not the cheap papier-mache that Riegbar and most of the revellers wore.

She extended a hand to him; her skin was dark, and when Riegbar reluctantly took it, he found the skin to be soft, though her grip was firm. “Sadly, she doesn’t believe in mercy. If one is meant to find me, Christina believes, they will find their way to me.” Her eyes, a rich mahogany brown, twinkled from beneath the mask, and as Riegbar settled himself into a seat opposite her, he realized where he’d heard that voice before.

“You should be dead, you know,” Riegbar said. “Mind if I take this damned thing off?” he added, already reaching up to the mask.

Vanozza di Anima, who, by her sister’s accounts, had perished ten years past, reached out to stop him. “Not yet. For now, it is safer if your face is hidden,” she said, her voice soft, but in a tone which would accept no argument. “Consider it...the price of admission.”

“Is that why you wear that, then?”

Vanozza laughed. “No, caro ragazzo, I wear this because it would not do for the face of a woman who, as you said, should be dead, to be seen in this city. Especially on the night of the carnival, when passions run high.” She beckoned upwards; the same strangely musical cry rang out, and a hawk dove down, landing on the back of Vanozza’s divan. Like her, the bird wore a mask, though Riegbar could not see how it was attached.

“I don’t recall Miranda saying that her sister was a sorceress,” Riegbar said, which was broadly true, because while Miranda had told him her story, how she’d survived the attack on her family home and fled the city, she’d mentioned little else, save that her parents and her two sisters had perished. "Or alive."

“That is because we look after each other, in our own ways, and because I am not a sorceress, Inquisitor.” It was disconcerting, seeing Vanozza’s eyes smiling while the face of the mask remained frozen in its beatific half-smile.

“A wizard, then? Certainly no druidess, not somewhere so removed from nature.” That she knew who he was, that was alarming, he’d been cautious with his identity. Even the drunken priestess no doubt thought he was merely a spy.

Laughing, Vanozza shook her head as she reached out for the hawk’s porcelain beak with one finger, which the bird playfully nipped at before consenting to be stroked. “Ah, caro Inquisitor,” she said at last. “I am a witch. La strega buona, they have come to call me here, because that is what we do in this city. We call the unknown and terrible kind and good, in the hope that it might pass us over. La bella giustizia. Il mare tipo. La strega buona. I am feared, and yet, I am sought out. Love charms, cures, curses, all those things which, I imagine, you would see me burnt for?”

Riegbar had heard of witches. Certainly, he’d dealt with women who had been accused of such, simply for knowing a little of herbalism, or perhaps showing some trace of sorcerous skill. But never had he actually encountered one whose powers were sourced in whatever unknown entities that deigned to speak to them. “I could be convinced to...look away,” he said at last, through clenched teeth. “I seek a greater corruption.”

“And for that, you would partner with one who, according to your books and your priests, stands against all that you believe in, eh, Inquisitor?” Vanozza’s tone was cruel now. “A lesser evil, allied with for the greater good. I approve of your practicality. Especially as I would much rather not anyone try to set me aflame again. I might not be so lucky this time, you see.” She placed two cups, finely chased silver, though one was slightly marred on its side, on the table, before pouring tea into each one. The liquid was crimson, so dark as to be almost purple. She turned her head back for a moment, listening to a sound Riegbar knew he would never hear. “It is safe to remove our masks now, Inquisitor,” the witch said, at last. “After all, if we are to be allies, after all, we must know each other’s face.”

Gratefully, Riegbar undid the ties holding his goat mask in place; the heat from the braziers made the confines of the papier-mache stifling, and he took the chance to wipe the sweat from his face with the hem of his cloak. Only when he had set his mask down on the table, did Vanozza remove her mask; she was indeed Miranda’s twin, the same full lips and strong cheekbones, the same broad and shapely nose, though the left side of Vanozza’s face was marred by a faded burn scar. Unlike Mirand, who wore her dark hair braided back in tight, severe rows, Vanozza favoured a elaborate style of shining, ropy plaits, woven through with tiny charms that glistened as they caught the candlelight.

“A toast, then, caro Inquisitor.” Vanozza said. “And no, it isn’t poisoned. Test it for yourself. We are, after all, allies in this matter.”

Riegbar circled his finger over the cup, the sides already heated by the scalding liquid, though to his hand it merely felt pleasantly warm, a perk of his fiendish heritage. Neither the orison for the detection of poison or magic yielded any results, so, with a cautious whispered prayer, he took a sip. “Delicious,” Riegbar said, though he had no real basis against which to compare. It certainly tasted good, fruity and sweet, unlike any tea he’d had before, but whether this was an exemplary blend or not, he could care less.

Vanozza in turn sipped delicately from her own cup, a motion that Riegbar had once seen her sister do in exactly the same way. “Now, you have come here chasing the rumours which plague your temples here, have you not?”
“I have. How do you know?”

“An educated guess, caro Inquisitor. Merely an educated guess.” Vanozza took another sip, before setting her cup back down onto its plate. She had chosen the warped cup, he noticed. “As one who comes so infrequently in to the city, I too have seen what you have seen. What is preached from the pulpit changes a little in each telling, too subtle for the faithful to catch.”

“What do you mean, “comes infrequently”?” Riegbar asked; he had assumed that the witch was set up in, if not this alley, then certainly somewhere in the maze of streets and canals.

“It would be imprudent for me to stay here for too long. The di Anima family still has its enemies, even if most believe that family to be long gone.” Vanozza replied. “But also, it would not do for those who seek me to have an easy time of it. Adversity strengthens the soul, after all, one of the few things that we can agree on.”

“Then how am I to find you,” Riegbar asked, “When I have need of you again?”

The witch arched one dark brow. “What’s to say that you will have need of me again?”

Try as he might, Riegbar could not tell if the witch was mocking him, or if her question was sincere, but he’d learned more from someone who stood against everything that he believed in than he had from those who professed to be the most devout. He had to take a leap of faith, and trust that he’d found an unlikely ally in a city being turned to heresy.

Part of him argued that surely, the twin sister of a paladin whose faith even Riegbar could not bring himself to question could not truly be an enemy. But though this woman wore the face of his closest friend, she belonged to another force. Whatever offer she made, it was to serve her own agenda, and that of her otherworldly master. She and Riegbar would use each other, useful tools for a grim task, to be discarded when they were no longer helpful.

“I have need of someone who knows this city. And you have need of someone who knows the church.”

He’d just have to be sure that he survived being discarded.