Dread Foundries of Under Louis
Tracy L Dunn
It was a gray dull day on the Styx, not that there were ever any other kind. And the term "day" didn't mean much when there was no sun to mark the passing of one day into the next. Still Stephen Fox noted the day as dull
and gray. Of course this was mostly to distract himself from what was to come once the great Iron Boat had finished pulling alongside the sandbar that was just a few dozen yards from the shore. Close enough to tempt one
into trying to swim. If one happened to be a fool or protected by very strong magic. Then again risking swimming the Styx was the act of a fool in Stephen's book no matter how much magic you had protecting you. And Stephen
was not a fool; or at least not that much of one.
If he were truly not a fool of some sort or other he wouldn't be following the lifestyle of a wandering gambler/mage along the banks of the Styx. There were after all safer ways of making a living. Many of which paid better than gambling or mage
craft. Not that mage work didn't pay; if you were good at it. And that was rather the point. Stephen wasn't good at it.
Oh he could cast a few spells well enough to get himself out of a tight spot. But brewing potions and enchanting objects day in and day out was just sooo dull. Which made his current picklement all the more vexing. It would almost be funny, if it were happening to someone else. Cheating at cards by way of magic. Really. If he were good enough to bewitch a deck of cards without being noticed on an Iron Boat while it was underway.... Well if he were that good he would have opened a shop a long time ago and likely be ready to retire by now.
The Iron Boat swung around and came to a stop alongside the sandbar with
its blue energy field crackling softly.
"Steady there."Called the Captain. "We won't be long. Will we Mr. Fox?"
he added turning to Stephen.
Stephen looked at him and then at the spell shackle on his wrist. "Is this really necessary ?" he ask.
"No." said the Captain softly "But they insist. And as they own most of the cargo on the boat..." he gave a shrug.
"I see." Stephen said flatly.
"For what it's worth, I don't think you was doing what they say. I know a thing or two about how hard it is to do mage work while a Boat's underway. No hard feelings between us?" he ask offering his hand.
Stephen looked at the offered hand coolly for a moment before spotting the glint of something hidden in it.
"No. No, hard feelings between us." he said taking the hand and the key hidden in it. "You were just doing what you had to do." he added slipping the key into a pocket.
"Right then. RUN OUT THE PLANK !" he yelled turning to the two general purpose Synthoids standing near the rail. The "Plank" was a yard wide, ten foot long, six inch thick slab of Rune covered FerroMantic Iron. The Synthoids lifted it as if it were Balsa wood and quickly ran it out over the lower bar of the ships railing. Once it was hooked in place and the upper bar was swung aside the Captain turned to Stephen "You may now go ashore Mr. Fox." he said with a grand wave of his arm tword the "plank".
Which was greeted with grins and snickers from the cargo owners who weren't able to deal with the fact that Stephen was really just that good at cards. Not sparing them so much as a look he strode down the "plank" and on to the sandbar. managing not to flinch as the energy field snapped back once his trail foot had left the plank and touched down on the mud of the "sand" bar. He stood there not moving until he caught sight of the Iron Boat's blue glow moving on past the bar and then he turned his back on it and looked the other way.
Once the boat was out of sight Stephen took out the key and applied it to the locking rune on the Shackle, and sent power through it. There was a click, and the Shackle opened. Amateurs. If you want to hold a wizard you need to use two Shackles. And I might have been able to pick badly made ones like this even if they had used two. But the key was faster. He admitted to himself, as he pulled a bit of string out of his pocket and hung the key around his neck. Never know when you might need something like that. and then after a moments thought he passed his hand over the key and murmured a Word. The Key shimmered and a simple Rune stone charm took its place. Then he took a Scrip out of his belt pouch and went to work in the Shackle's inner surface. About half an hour later, during which an Iron Boat had passed without even slowing down, he made a few quick changes to the Runes on the outside of the Shackle and then snapped it closed around his left wrist. A touch to the locking rune and then the two on the side and then the one on the bottom and it shimmered and faded from view. Never hurts to have a trick or two up your sleeve, especially when people you don't like do most of the work for you without even knowing it.
But Stephen's smirk of satisfaction quickly faded as he stood there waiting for a someone to come along with the only change of view was a slow but steady rising of the Mist over the Styx.
Once Stephen had finished his work on the Spell Shackle he turned his attention to the problem of getting off the sandbar. His best hope was a Boat or a Barge coming along. Hopefully before his Styx charm failed. The rising mist wasn't as dangerous as the lapping waters at the edge of the bar; but without the charm it would still wash away his
hope and memories; just more slowly and less noticeably.
He glanced at the Charm its glow was undiminished, for now. Calling a Boatman wasn't an option; other things that couldn't reach him on shore would hear/feel, the call and get there first. Using the Shackle to power a bridge spell could work, if his Charm held long enough to let him charge the Shackle slowly. A fast charge would be as bad as trying to Call a Boatman.
Then he saw it. Low to the water and half hidden by the rising mist. But clearly there; the spell glow of an Iron Boat or, given its lowness to the water, a Rune Barge.
As it drew closer, it became clear that it was a barge. While far less shielded than a Boat a Barge was far more likely to stop and pick him up. So, once it was close enough Stephen cast a ball of light into the air above the water a little way out from the bar.
"Ahoy, the Barge!" he called.
"Ahoy, yourself." a voice called back, "What in the name of Cerberus are you doing out here?"
"Waiting for a kindly soul to save me from the malice of those who can't bear their losses like gentlemen."
"HA HO !" the voice called back, "I'm a mercenary soul more than kindly one, but if you've a bit of bling to trade for passage..." and the Barge to a stop even as the voice trailed off expectantly.
Stephen was less than thrilled to see that the speaker was a Cyclops with a crew of orks. Still, having no other real choice..."I think we can work something out." he said stepping onto the Barge.
"Well," Said the Cyclops, "what have ye ta offer for passage upon me fine craft?"
'Fine craft ?' was pushing things a bit to Stephen's way of thinking, altho the Rune carved Darkwood looked to be in far better shape than most craft of this type that he'd seen; not that he'd had reason to see very many.
"I've a fine light crystal." he offered pulling one from an inside pocket. He didn't expect it to be nearly enough, but saw no reason to offer the full price all at once. He might get the giant to settle for less.
"It's a start." the giant said after looking at it.
"I've a bit of coin, but I'd rather your whole crew not know where I keep it." he said.
"A wise thought that. Cronk; I'll be in my cabin talking business, see we're not disturbed." the giant said tossing the crystal to a large, rough looking hobgoblin whom Stephen mistrusted as soon as he saw him.
"Aye, Captain Pheron." the hobgoblin said catching the crystal and hiding it without even turning to look.
"Not easy to look at, but useful for keeping the rest in line." Pheron remarked as he lead the way to a small hut at the back of the barge.
"Push off and get us back in the current." he called to a burly ork standing atop the hut holding the rudder pole.
"Aye, Captain." the ork called back. "Shove off ya lazy swine; Cap'n wants us underway!" the steersman bellowed as Stephen followed Pheron into the hut.
The room held a bed, a desk, and a chair. With the faint glow of locking spells on the bed; which was really a box with a mat on top; and the desk, which Pheron was opening.
"See to your secrets while I see to mine. Then we can talk for a bit."
"But we've not set a price." Stephen protested.
"Half of what you've got in your money belt should cover it."
"Very well." Stephen said drawing out five of the twelve gold pieces hidden there as he gave thanks that the three platinum pieces were hidden elsewhere.
Pheron counted the coins and slipped them into a pouch on his belt."The Crystal is worth about a gold, so I'll let it slide. But you shouldn't try shorting people like that; it'll get you into trouble one of these days.
Stephen flushed as re d as his hair and gave silent thanks that the spell shackle kept him from shifting.
Altho the Cyclops might already know his true nature.
Pheron laughed "Now that you know lying to me is a waste of time, will you have a drink and tell me of yourself and your travels; starting, perhaps with your name ?" and with that Pheron held out a glass of green liquid which Stephen recognized as Saurian brandy.
Very good Saurian brandy, he discovered after a careful first sip quickly
followed by a full swallow.
"Ah, that's good." Stephen observed while resolving to be careful about
drinking any more. Saurian brandy packs quite a punch. Pheron drained his glass, refilled it and took a sip of the next, waiting.
Stephen took another sip. "I am called Stephen Fox; among a number of less disserved and far less suitable things."
Pheron had raised his eyebrow at the name 'Fox', but said nothing, finishing off his second glass and refilling it again. Stephen took another sip of his drink and wondered if he could hold his own even at a glass to sip rate.
"I am a mage, of some small skill;" he went on, "and a gambler of rather greater skill."
"Which leads some to assume you use your first skill to improve the second." Pheron observed putting the cork back in the bottle and putting it and his glass back into the desk. Stephen drained his own glass and handed it over.
"And so the question of your arrival on the sandbar is answered; yet the answer spawns the question of why you travel the Styx in the first place."
"No great mystery there." Stephen said, "I had heard that Under Louis offered opportunities to use my second skill set to acquire the means to improve the first, and places where those means could be applied without need of further travel." all of which was quite true, as far as it went; his other reasons for traveling to Under Louis were ones it would be better to keep to himself, even if Pheron were a trustworthy sort, a boat full of orks, goblins, hobgoblins, and their ilk was no place to talk about matters of that sort. "Ah" said Pheron, "So you plan to settle in Under Louis.
"Yes." Stephen said "But what of you; I'm assuming Under Louis is just a stop along your way?"
"For now; but a few more loads of Nether Ore and I'll have enough Feromantic Iron to start turning this into a Boat. There's more money in travelers than cargo; even if cargo doesn't complain as much.
Stephen smiled at that, then added, "If you don't already have a Mage lined up, come see me when you're ready to start building and I'll give you a good price on the Inscribing."
"I'll bear it in mind; but I managed the Runes on this tub well enough by myself."
Stephen blinked and let his eyes go silver for a moment. The Spell Weave on the Barge clearly matched Pheron's Aura and his mere ten foot height should have been a tip off to his other than pure giant blood. Which lead Stephen to revise his estimate of Pheron's age upward by a couple of decades. After all a pureblood wouldn't start coming into his magic until his first century or later. But a half-bread...
"and a fine job it is too." Stephen said letting his eyes shift back to 'normal'
"Still; a bit of help could save me some time, and work space don't come cheap in Under Louis; even in the best of times."
"Best of times?" Stephen ask hoping not to seen too interested.
"Scorpanoks; or so I've heard. Not just a few, and not just passing through a company's worth, and staying around.
"Doing what?!"Stephen exclaimed, "I could see a few loaner types taking a warehouse guard job to get by till something better turned up. But a company...?"
"Arms and armor; would be my guess. And they might be needing transport for it."
"Careful there." Stephen warned, "Scorpanoks aren't noted for paying for what they can just take."
"Depends on the Company. Some are better than others." Pheron rumbled; clearly not pleased at the thought."Anyway, I plan to dock in the goblin quarter until I can get their measure."
Stephen didn't think that was much safer than dealing with Scorpanok mercenaries but held his peace, as getting out of the goblin quarter and into a better part of town unnoticed was a better plan than landing at the main docks or trying to find his way through the tunnels beyond Under Louis from some uncharted landing point.
"So how far are we from Under Louis ?" Stephen asks, wondering how long he could stay awake, or if he'd have to risk trying to sleep on the Barge somewhere.
"A few hours yet." Pheron said getting up, "a bit less if I push things. You can catch a nap in here if you like. I'll catch up on my sleep in Under Louis."
"I wouldn't want to put you out." Stephen said; even as he took an appraising look at the bed and decided it would be quite comfortable.
"No bother, I've got a meal and a bed waiting for me at the Stag." Pheron said opening the door and stepping out.
'The Stag' !? Well that was interesting Stephen thought as the door closed. He was to meet the Lady Fantasia there and learn what he could from her before poking around on his own. Could Pheron be one of Melkior's agents? Best not to know, if what Melkior feared was true. But would Scorponoks work for Thulians? Of course if they were using Varna agents there would be no reason for the Scorps to know who they were really working for. Deciding that further speculating would be pointless until he knew more; Stephen set a simple alarm ward on the door. Anything more would have been too much work with the Barge underway. And with his privacy secured he unlocked the holding spell on the Shackle and returned to his true form. And after giving himself a good bone popping stretch, lay down on the bed; not bothering to take his clothes off or turn down the covers. And was quickly asleep.
A few moments, hours?, later he snapped awake. The Barge was slowing and the energy field shutting down. He quickly Shifted and reset the Shackle. Which he noted was now almost half charged. He'd just taken the alarm ward off the door when Pheron opened it.
"We're here.” he said, "Will you be needing a Cloak?"
"I think not." Stephen said glancing at the Styx Charm around his neck: it would need recharging soon. He added a Disguise Amulet. As the Amulet fell into place next to Charm and hidden Key Stephen's form seemed to waver for a moment as the image of an ork overlay his own.
"Aye. That should do; if no one looks close."Pheron allowed as he lead the way out of the cabin.
"Unless they already know the truth." Cronk said pointing a crossbow at Stephen's heart.
“Let’s see what you really look like.” said the Scorpanok standing to Cronk’s left, reaching forward to grab Stephen’s disguise amulet and jerk it off. The ork image shimmered and vanished leaving his human form behind. Stephen wondered if his true form had shown during his unmasking, but could think of no way to check.
“What’s the meaning of this Cronk?!” Pheron demanded.
“Sorry Captain, but they made a better offer for him; and you.”
The Scorpanok looked closely at Pheron, “Yes, there’s a bounty on this one too.” he said. More Scorpanoks moved forward from among the orks, energy crackling around their lower hands Shackles held in upper.
“Rest of the crew’s secure Sarge. What about this one?” One of the new arrivals ask indicating Cronk with a wave of his Shackle filled hand.
“He works for the Boss.” the Sergeant said.
The Shackle waver took a step back. “You mean he’s…”
“…Not your problem.” the Sergeant cut him off.
“Right. So, just these two then.” he said turning back to Stephen and Pheron. “You going to come along quiet like or do we stun you, chain you, and wait for you to wake up?”
“No waiting.” the Sergeant said twitching his tail with impatience. “If we stun ‘em, we drag ‘em.
“You heard the Sarge. So how ‘bout it?”
Stephen held out his arms; there would be chances to escape later. Trying to fight free now would just get him stunned and dragged. This way he’d at least get a look at where they were going. To his relief Pheron seemed to have reached the same conclusion; as he also held out his arms with a muttered growl.
The Shackles snapped shut around each wrist and then came PAIN!!! Blinding; Searing; Pain! Then it was gone.
“Just a taste of what you’ll get if you cause any trouble.” the Sergeant said as Stephen and Pheron climbed back to their feet. Stephen didn’t even remember falling, but a pain in his shoulder bore witness to his meeting with the deck.
“All right; Let’s move you maggots. You two, up front; The rest of you rabble form up behind them; Four wide. Move it; Move it; Move it!” the sergeant yelled waving his upper arms while keeping the pain rod in his lower right hand close to his side.
Stephen set off at a quick trot, having no other choice. Pheron was lucky to be tall enough to keep pace at a walk.
Scorpanoks were everywhere, carapaces gleaming, tails held high, pain batons held in their upper arms. This wasn’t a company, this was an army. An occupying army. How could they have taken over so quickly and completely?
They had only been marching for about 20 min. when the Foundries came into view and a feeling of unease started stealing over Stephen. He glanced down at his Styx-charm and breathed a Work of Power over it and only just managed not to flinch at the pain from the Shackles. WOW ! Picking these things will be a real trick (if I can do it at all) a nagging voice of doubt added. After all, he’d be not only trying to pick top of the line pain shackles, but trying it in a dread field strong enough to give him the creeps this far out. The Charm was helping, now that he’d boosted it, but it wouldn’t last long in the Foundries. A day, maybe less. Well, he’d just have to work fast, once he got a chance; if he got a chance.
Another half-hour of quick marching and they had reached the Foundries. And the Dread field was like a wool blanket soaked in ice water. Even through the Charm, and small wonder with the amount of Neather-Ore being smelted and Feromantic Iron being quenched in Styx water. The wonder was that anyone without a charm, of some sort or other, could stand to stay here at all.
Then a low-level pain started spreading over him from the Shackles. Like an electric shock set low enough to just be uncomfortable.
“That should be enough to keep you working.” The sergeant said. “And if the Dread starts slowing you down; we can always turn up the shock.”
“Now get to work. You lot can start shoveling black-rock into the furnace over there.” He said to one group. “And the rest of you can start loading ore into the smelter.” He went on indicating Stephen’s group.
Stephen struggled to hide his dismay. Neather-Ore drew magic, likely strongly enough to trip the pain shackle, as if he wouldn’t be working with enough problems and distractions. Now he’d be lucky to have any magic left by the time they were finial allowed to sleep; if they were allowed to sleep. No, surely the Scorps would allow them food and rest, just to get more work out of them in the long run.
Stephen closed off his mind to block out the pain and slow the relentless draining of his magic by the Neather-Ore. Survive now, escape later. And for the next several hours; he didn’t really notice how many; Stephen’s world shrank to a pile of ore, a smelter and the short path between them.
Then, water. He hadn’t noticed his thirst until the water skin was at his mouth and it was only starting to ease when the skin was gone leaving his thirst more pronounced than satisfied. Another timeless interval of ore and pain. Another mouthful of water. More Ore. Then finial; Food. He couldn’t have said what it was, just that it was something to chew that gave energy and almost awakened hunger before fatigue took it away along with everything else.
“Fox…” a voice called.
Then again louder, “Fox; wake up. It’s time to go.”
“Wha..? Who?” he muttered trying to force his eyes open.
“Good. You’re awake. Drink this; it’ll help” and he felt a glass bottle against his lips. “Who?” he tried to ask again as the bottle was tipped up forcing him to drink or chock. He drank, swallowing quickly. The warmth of the Ambrosia spread through him quickly and the world came into sharper focus. He almost cried out at the sight of a Scorpanok guard leaning over him.
“Relax, it’s me; Fantasia.” The ‘guard’ said.
“How do…”He started to ask.
“Would a ‘real’ guard be helping you?”She snapped.
“Good to see you too. Now about these.” he said holding out the Shackles.
“You haven’t got them off yet; you’ve been awake a good minuet now.” She teased, and then grew serious. “I couldn’t get a key. They don’t seem to believe in keeping ant handy.”
“Stephen muttered a curse. “Fine; I’ll just have to do this the hard way. Go see if you can get Pheron up.”
“Cyclops, half-bread; over that way, I think. Shouldn’t be too hard to find.” He said pointing off to his left.
“Friend of yours?”
“I think so. His first mate sold us out to the Scorps. But I think he was really a Varna.”
“The mate?” Stephen nodded. “o.k. I’ll see what I can do for your friend.” She said and moved off.
Stephen watched the doppelganger go “unnerving, but useful.” He muttered, “Not that I have room to talk on that score. He added after a moment’s pause.
Then he turned his attention to the Shackles. The one from the Boat was like a toy next to these. But the fact that they had missed that ‘toy’ might just give him the edge he’d need to beat these. He reached for the hidden Shackle with his mind and Power. Yes; as he’d hoped it was fully charged; having caught a good bit of the power being pulled from him by the Neather-Ore. Now what to do with that power? He studied the Runes on the Scorp-Shackles. Yes, more complex than the one from the Boat; even after he’d worked on it; but a Shackle is still a Shackle and so there has to be a lock and key rune set up somewhere on it. “ah ha ! There you are. And you are a nasty, tricky, bit of work too aren’t you?” Stephen muttered as he traced the spell weave from Rune to Rune. Tweek the wrong Rune and the pain spell would keep building until it kills you. Nasty. But, if I link this back to here; and this over to here… He reached into his belt pouch for his Scrib; somewhat surprised to find that it was still there…
He was just finishing when a guard came by. “And just what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
Stephen didn’t hesitate, he channeled energy from the hidden Shackle through the one he’d just finished working on and sent a bolt of pure Pain at the guard; who crumpled with only a soft moan. He was taking aim at a second guard when he spotted Pheron behind ‘him’ just as she called out “It’s me.” He lowered his arm in relief.