Never be surprised when good deeds are punished.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Azusa pulled further back into the shadows as a late night drunk stumbled past her on his way home from the inn. The ever-present fog and mist alternately hid then revealed him as he staggered along singing loudly and off-key. He was slurring his words but she was able to recognize it as the melancholy ‘Ballad of the Lost Heirs’, one of her favorites.
His voice finally faded long after the heavy fog hid him from view. She waited a bit longer, shifting from one foot to another on the warm ground. She’d heard wizards had calculated the ground was over nine tenths as hot as the human body. She didn’t know how they could figure out such a thing but she believed it. They also said a giant pool of molten rock, far underground, leftover from the Chaos Wars, was responsible for the constant heat and humidity of Adelaide. Outside Adelaide there was nothing but snow and ice as far south as the Rampart Mountains.
Her blue eyes glanced around to see if any other late night revelers were on their way home. Satisfied the streets were deserted, she broke into a dead run toward the house she’d cased earlier. She bounded high into the air and caught the floor of the balcony. Houses in every city-state in Adelaide were built on stilts with wide balconies all the way around them to divert rising hot air away from the inner rooms.
She swung her body back and forth, pumping up her swing until she was able to do a back flip up onto the outer edge of the balcony, grabbing the railing and vaulting over it with ease. She landed silently on bare feet and crouched for a moment, waiting to see if she’d woken anyone. The stairs had been pulled up for the night so her acrobatic maneuver was the only way in.
She brushed her long black hair out of the way. She wasn’t proud of being a thief. She was an acrobat and juggler, but sometimes the troupe of entertainers she traveled with didn’t make enough money to pay them. When that happened, it was every man and woman for themselves. Due to her size and skills, the only thing she was good at was thievery. Some of the other women in the troupe sold themselves for the night to make ends meet. While she didn’t blame or despise them for it, she’d never been able to bring herself to join them in that pursuit either.
Concluding no one was aware of her presence, she slithered in through a doorless entrance and stole along the hallway, proceeding more by touch than sight. Most of the houses in the city-state of Keheyla, pronounced kay-hay-la, were built according to the same pattern as houses everywhere; there was a wide hallway down the middle with large double-wide entrances at either end to provide a breezeway, and rooms with arched doorways up and down the hall. Do to the year-round heat, day and night, actual doors in Adelaide were rare, which made her job easier.
Within minutes she was leaping back over the balcony railing to the ground below, a fistful of coins clutched in her hand. She hit soundlessly, rolled, and was on her feet, dashing through the foggy, humid streets to the safety of the shadows. Once hidden, she stopped to count her loot.
She’d taken less than half of what she’d found. Just because circumstances forced her steal to survive didn’t mean she had to take everything the family had. All she needed was enough for herself for a few days to make up for what the troupe couldn’t pay her. She counted 15 coppers, enough for three days room and board at most inns. She smiled and pocketed the money.
She brushed her long, straight black hair out of her face, her blue eyes surveying the nighttime streets as she made her way back to the inn where the troupe was staying. She’d been on her own since her stepmother, Hawfa, died when she was only ten. Hawfa was a corruption of a word from the Old Tongue that meant gloomy and it certainly fit her stepmother.
“Finding you in that swamp was the only good thing that ever happened to me,” Hawfa had declared on more than one occasion. “Life is long and hard and then you die.” She spat on the ground. “And don’t you be taken in by nothing them priests have to say about the gods neither. They ain’t taking us to no paradise when we die so there’s no hope there either.”
Azusa grimaced at the memory. Hawfa was the only mother she’d ever known and she loved her, but her outlook on life was often more depressing than she could bear. She’d named her Azusa because it came from an old word that meant forsaken and since she’d been found in a swamp, apparently ‘forsaken’ is what she had been. Her eyes cleared though as she fingered the locket around her neck. It’s presence on her neck when Hawfa found her meant someone had once loved her.
The tiny filigreed chain was pure gold although, since she was a traveling entertainer, most people assumed it was fake. It wasn’t though. It was real gold, as was the engraved locket hanging from it. The strange symbol on it looked like the cartouche of a royal family. There were over 300 city states in Adelaide though, always fighting and conquering each other, so most “royal” families were little more than brigands or enemies who beaten their adversaries and taken their place. Had her real parents been on the loosing end of one of those frequent clashes? If so, she was forsaken after all and Hawfa’s naming of her had been accurate.
Inside the locket were two different strands of hair, some black and some brown, braided together and tied in a loop. Was the hair from her parents? Perhaps it was from her and a sibling she didn’t know about. She didn’t know. She didn’t know how and why she’d been abandoned in the swamp where Hawfa found her either. Her past was a blank, a mystery that might never be solved.
Her path back to the inn took her past an abandoned temple of Adrammelech.
There was another mystery.
How could a single man have killed a god? Traveling bards – there were very few who made it past the Rampart Mountains to visit Adelaide – said it was a barbarian warrior who killed Adrammelech in single combat; others claimed it was a warrior chieftain from one of the Biqah tribes, but priests from the other gods laughed at the very idea, claiming it was little more than a self-centered story put out by a madman who was trying to take credit for accomplishing something that was clearly impossible. She knew priests were liars as a general rule but in this case she had to agree with them; there was no way a man could kill a god. It couldn’t be done.
Still . . .
Adrammelech was dead so somebody killed him.
If it had been one of the other gods, their priests would have been crowing about it nonstop ever since it happened over a year ago. It would have been a huge recruiting tool; they’d have been claiming it showed how much better their god was than the others and urging people to take their god instead of whichever one they followed. None of the priests had done that though, which meant Adrammelech hadn’t been killed by another god.
So, who did it?
Her train of thought was interrupted by a strange, garbled growling from an alley she was passing. A chill ran down her spine. She’d only heard it once before but that was all it took, once you heard it you’d never forget it. It was the snarls of the twisted elves, which some people called orcs. The twisted elves had long been thought to be extinct but in the last year they’d suddenly made reappearances all over the world, killing, maiming, raping, and destroying everything they touched.
The sounds down the alley multiplied and she trembled at the realization there had be more than one or two of the horrible creatures. It sounded like a whole band of them. Fear seized her and she bounded away from the alley entrance, screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Twisted elves! Twisted elves! Alarm! Alarm!”
She banged on the walls of buildings as she ran to make more noise.
Someone appeared on the balcony of a house. “What’s going on?” It was a man in his nightshirt.
She stopped in an intersection and glanced up with relief. “Twisted elves! In an alleyway back there.” She pointed.
The man woke up in a hurry. “Orcs?”
She nodded. “Some people call them that.”
He grabbed something hanging at his side and raised it to his lips. She nearly danced for joy when she realized it was a horn. He was a member of the city guard! He blew a long blast followed by two short ones, then began shouting. “To arms! To arms! Orcs in the city!” The sound of the horn was repeated from three different directions followed by other men repeating his warning.
The guardsman pointed down at her. “Stay there!” He vanished inside and lights flared in the window.
Growling warned her and she screamed as she felt grasping claws grab her from behind. Her arm was twisted to immobilize her but her instincts kicked in and she threw herself into a spin in midair, her feet arcing overhead so her arm wasn’t twisted anymore. As she landed on her feet she came face-to-face with the twisted elf holding her arm.
The fair and even features of an elf had been darkened, squashed together, and distorted. What should have been luxuriant falls of golden hair were gone, replaced instead with a scabrous scalp with tangled knots of black, oily hair randomly scattered about. Likewise, the body had been twisted and darkened. A fetid sweaty body odor assaulted her nostrils which, coupled with the horrid bad breath escaping past brown stained fangs and chapped lips, nearly caused her stomach to revolt and spew bile.
Her small, lithe form was no match for the sheer strength of the twisted elf but she had long recognized her limits and practiced moves to compensate for them. She fought down the urge to vomit and threw herself into another leaping spin that left her sitting on the twisted elf’s shoulders. The move took him by surprise and before he could recover, she slit his throat with her trusty knife. She leapt free as he crashed to the ground. More surged forward and her heart sank. There was no way she could survive that many!
She didn’t have to.
Pounding feet announced the timely arrival of the city guard.
The heat and high humidity in Adelaide forced the inhabitants to eschew normal fabrics for their clothing. They used strings made from intestines, in a loose weave that let air in and out. String made from fish skin was also popular as well as ultra-thin strands of rubberized tree sap. All of these had the added benefit of being waterproof and could be made into small threads which were then woven to make loin clothes, bikini tops, and loose short pants. Most people usually went barefoot the way Azusa did or wore sandals or rubberized shoes with plenty of air holes cut in them. Despite their duties, the city guard were no different. Adelaide was too hot for heavy encasing metal armor so their defense came primarily from shields and skill with a blade. They wore a loose-woven tunic over their regular clothes in the colors of the guard but that was their only distinguishing mark.
They poured into the intersection where Azusa found herself, coming from all directions. Metal met metal and a furious battle was joined. She yelped and threw herself on the ground, scrambling between their legs and falling bodies until she reached the edge of swirling melee. She sprang to her feet but was stopped by a heavy hand on her shoulder.
“Hold on there, missy.” It was the man she’d woken up. He’d thrown his guard tunic on over his nightshirt but other than that and a sword in his hand, he was still much as he’d been when she first saw him. Behind him, the battle was coming to a close. The twisted elves were fierce fighters and several guards were wounded but their sheer numbers had overwhelmed the monsters in short order. The last one fell as she watched.
“What?” she asked. “I warned you about the twisted elves. Are you mad at me for that?” She essayed her most wounded and put upon expression.
The guard shook his head. “Not at all. You did us a good turn.” His eyes were hard and suspicious in spite of his conciliatory tone. “But what were you doing out at this hour of night in the first place?” His voice hardened and her heart sank. He nodded at her expression. “Up to no good, I’ll warrant, and called out for help just to save your own skin when the orcs popped up.” His grip tightened. “You have some explaining to do.”