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The guards marched grimly by Ren’s stand, which offered a paltry selection of fish, most of them rancid. The fishmonger’s wife, Silla, lowered a basket to the ground, wiping sweat from her brow, “What’s all tha’ then?”
“Dunna know fer certain. Guards been everywhere lately”, Ren answered.
“Looks like they’re headed ta tha Caves. Been some unpleasantness down there?”
Ren stopped gutting a fish, “Geordy told me tha’ other day, there’s been bodies showin’ up here an’ there. Right gashed they were.”
“Go on then!”
“I’m serious! Hearts torn out an’ arms folded across the chest. Hands pinned there ta tha shoulders, they were. Old Nate reckons he seen tha doers. A right mob, wearing black cloaks. Says they had a jar full o’ hearts, they did.”
“Old Nate’s a lunatic.”
“Aye, but he swears its true.”
“Oh and then how did Old Nate flee these dread figures?”, Silla barked and stomped back into their shop, her face twisted into a scowl of disbelief. Nevertheless, she muttered a small prayer.

Gill raised a hand to shade his eyes from the setting sun. Nearby the members of his squad were whiling away the time gossiping. The picture of gossipy washerwomen is wrong. Soldiers are masters of the trivial.
Geordy called out to the pensive knight-captain, “Captain! There’s naught going to get into Ophen but dust and wind. Let’s knock off early and grab a drink or ten at the Goods and Bads.”
“We’ll see out our assignment, soldier. This caravan from Brokenshield is overdue and it’s our responsibility to be here when it arrives. The powers that be want to ensure the safe delivery of its cargo. What they want, we do.”
“Feh! I care not for your politicians. They can rot, like the swarm of bloodsuckers, they are.” Geordy japed to the rough laughter of his fellows.
At Gill’s side, Sualy muttered, “You are too indulgent with the men, sir. Their disciple is slipping.”
Turning, Gill looked at his sour sergeant at arms, “You’re too hard on them, Sualy. This is a fool’s run and they know it. Best that they give voice to their spleen than hide it behind empty salutes.”
“The caravan is not coming.” Sualy spat.
“No, I fear not. Still no word from Brokenshield. It has been weeks since the last letter from the settlers arrived. This silence is worrisome.” Gill scratched his short, grey beard.
“There’s been no letup in the storms. Perhaps they are waiting until the sky clears and the road is safe?”
“False hope from you, Sualy?” Gill smiled, deepening the wrinkles around his eyes.
The sergeant at arms scowled. “You give credence to the rumours then? The monastery is lost to the demons?”
Before Gill could respond, a voice from behind interjected. “You patsies! Brokenshield is a lie. You know full well the truth. It’s all over Ophen! Those settlers are dead! Sold to the demons by the rulers for a bag of clink.”
Gill stalked over to the guardsman, the red birthmark over half his face dark with anger. “Might I remind you that you are a soldier of Ophen and a member of her august guard. I can only hope that you have more sense than to believe such rubbish!”
“Stow it, Winestain! You can…”
The guardsman did not finish his thought as the knight-captain’s mailed fist smashed into his neck. Gill rose over the gasping, spitting soldier, like a terrible giant, “Enough! Sualy, take this man to the dungeons. He is fit neither for the guard nor for Ophen. Perhaps the Undema will find a use for him digging holes and breaking rocks.” The sergeant at arms grasped the soldier by the back of the neck, holding the man’s head below his waist, and with little care hauled him away.
Silence enfolded the remaining guardsmen. Finally, Geordy approached the knight-captain. “Kel didn’t mean nothing by it, Cap’n.”
Gill frowned, the ends of his white mustache dropping below his jaw.
“It’s just, well, he’s spooked, like the rest of us. Our kin in Brokenshield is silent. More ‘n more pouring into the city every day, most ain’t even human. And the Rangers…”
Gill raised an eyebrow.
“Well, their motives ain’t what they once was, eh? They spend all their time in the wastes. They bring back all manner of demonic relics.”
Another guardsman spoke up, “It’s true! I was drinking with some that pulled night duty and they told me that the Rangers brought an anchor-stone back from the Abyss. All secret like, with a Zith wizard.” He spat. “Into the city! Tell me that’s not asking for a mess of trouble.”
A third guard interjected, “What if it’s not a mistake? What if they intend to open a portal. I’ve seen ‘em around the city, these Rangers. They ain’t human! They don’t even try to hide it no more. There’s some orc with black stone for skin. An’ he glows with fire inside, like a forge, he does! Even Broff…”
The soldier fell silent as his fellows grumbled angrily at his unspoken accusation, but another took his place. “Even Broff’s done things. Inhuman things.”

“He ain’t right.”


Rise of the Alstalar Meshon Keebler