All-That-Is is a magical land.
A perfect circle, covered by ocean and land. Above it is the Holy Realm, the plane where the Gods live. Below it, the Fireland, where no mortal can survive more than a few burning seconds. It is surrounded by a wall of ice, and past that, there is nothing.
All-That-Is isn't just a name.
There are 10 races, each with their own homeland, but this tale takes place at the very centre of All-That-Is, on the island of Earlgate, the Angel Capital. In the middle of the island of the middle of All-That-Is, there's an Angel city, a “Hand”, built vertically to reach the Holy Realms. In this Hand lives the ruler of the Angels.
Over 200 years ago, there had been a war. The Pirates had decided to build a floating pirate city – a number of ships, connected to each other by planks and ropes, which would float the oceans and seas. The Angels, the race which dominates the world, had barely tolerated the presence of Pirates for years, and this was the last straw.
The Angel-Pirate War had been projected to last for hundreds of years. Due to clever action by Pann, one of the Angel Commanders, the fight lasted less than 5 years, however its influences can still be felt, hundreniums later.
Perhaps the most prominent result of the Angel-Pirate War is “The Wall”. Built to protect the Hand that reaches to the Holy Realms from attacks, the Wall stands 500m high, and is 16k from end to end. Because the war lasted less than half the time it took to build the Wall it was abandoned shortly after completion.
*to leave it half-completed would have appeared messy, and the Angels didn't want an eyesore right next to the greatest city in the world
Naturally, people started moving in. People from all over – Elves, Dwarves, Humans, even Fairies. In the Year of the Colubus Monkey, which is where we start our story, the Wall has existed for so long that few people even remember the War it was built for. It has its own suburbs, customs, and most people who live on the Wall have never known anything else.
There is a prophecy that some day, an important figure will come to the Wall. His name is not known, only his initials, and they are whispered by prophets everywhere. It is said that some day, this important figure will come to the Wall, and he will fall off. And through the best efforts of the King (exactly which King isn't specified), his men, and even his whores, they will be unable to piece together his identity. It is said that for the rest of time, he will be known only as “HD.”
This isn't a story about that. This is a story about a fellow called Wart.
Wart (full name “Stu Wart”; he prefers to be known as “Stu”) ran through the kitchen at full speed. This was a kitchen he'd been in many times before – never, admittedly, running at full speed, but certainly one that he was familiar with.
He ducked around a counter, and ran through a door, leaving it open behind him. Carefully placing saucepans is not easy to do while simultaneously running, but Stu attempted it nonetheless. Around the next counter, Mrs Limbo was casually leaning.
“Allo Stu,” she said with a tolerant grin. “In trouble again, are you?”
Stu stopped. He listened carefully, and heard a crash, and a swearword. He had 10, maybe 20 seconds.
“Mrs Limbo,” he charmed, “you are looking fabulous! Is there any way I can convince you to abandon your post, and nip off to the store-room with me?”
Mrs Limbo chortled, as she always did, ruffled his hair, as she always did, and said that he was a cheeky bastard, as she always did.
“How's Ron,” Stu asked hurriedly. Behind him, he could hear a saucepan being angrily thrown against a wall. “I've heard that he's being sent home early?”
Mrs Limbo raised one eyebrow. “Are you sure you really want to be discussing this right now?”
“No time like the present,” Stu replied.
Stu Wart was an information man.
Some called him “the” information man, but to those people, he would chuckle, brush off the compliment, and slip them an extra piece of gossip. Stu had lived on the Wall for his whole life, and had made a business out of getting to know people (and, more importantly, getting to know what they knew.)
“Well,” she said, pointedly looking at the door, where in a few seconds an angry Dwarf brandishing a saucepan was going to be storming in. “He broke his leg during training. He'll be out of commission for a few months now.”
“Can't they just heal it?” Stu asked, mentally calculating the quickest route out of the room.
Mrs Limbo held up her left wrist, upon which was a tattoo of a lock pick, the symbol of Som Addream. Worshippers of Som Addream didn't believe in using magic to heal injuries, preferring to “let Som take his course.”
“Ah.” Stu answered. “Do you know if he's being sent home, or is he going to recuperate there? It's just that Lazy Daisy, down the hall, has always had a bit of a...”
Before Stu could inform Mrs Limbo of the reason for Lazy Daisy's curiosity, an angry Dwarf brandishing a saucepan stormed in.
“We'll talk later,” Stu yelped, and jumped out a window.
Mrs Limbo's kitchen was one of the largest kitchens on the Wall, and had expanded to fill one of the towers that dotted the top of the wall (which was referred to by inhabitants of the Wall as the “Mur”). As such, when Stu jumped out of a window, it was not an entirely suicidal act; he didn't find 500m of air waiting for him, and a hard landing after that.
Instead, he was aimed for the canvas roof of one of the market stalls. It was the second-last day of the month, and as such, he knew that Lark would be setting up his map stall, ready for the festivals the next day.
Stu had taken a slight risk; Lark didn't always set up his stall this early in the day. But Mrs Limbo's restaurant was closing slightly early today, and so he known (or hoped, at least) that Lark would want to be set up in time to get an evening meal.
Information was power, Stu had learned at a very early age. His insatiable curiosity had saved his life many times. Admittedly, had it not been for his curiosity, he wouldn't be hurtling out of a window in the first place, but hurtling towards a canvas with an angry Dwarf behind you wasn't really the best time to be pondering the intricacies of his lifestyle.
Stu bounced off the canvas, and landed on the ground knee-first. Better than head-first, but he ideally would have preferred to land on his feet.
“Lark,” he gasped, looking up at the window. There was no sign of the Dwarf yet; Mrs Limbo might have slowed him down slightly. She always had a soft spot for Stu; he and Ron had quite often played together as children, Ron playing a soldier, and Stu pretending to be a spy for the nature. Ron had indeed gone on to be a soldier (although clearly “training” had proved to be a bit much of a challenge for him) while Stu had gone on to be...well, an information man.
“Lark,” Stu gasped. “Take down your canvas roof! It won't rain, I promise!
Lark stared blankly at Stu. While it was clear that he trusted Stu's weather forecast (one of Stu's many informants was a worshipper of Hiri Matea, the God of Weather) the canvas roof, as well as looking good, took a while to set up. Lark's gaze, while blank, managed to quite accurately send a message - “What's in it for me?”
“I'll tell you...” Stu frantically searched his mind for recent information that would be of value to Lark. “...I'll tell you where you can get a cheap map of The Land of Ogres.”
Lark thought for a few seconds, and grunted. Lurk was a large, heavy-set human. There were some who said that Lark had a bit of Ogre-blood in him, but Stu didn't think so. Lurk was too intelligent, for one, even if he wasn't a big speaker.
Without a word, Lark turned around and started to take down his canvas roof. He trusted Stu; Stu had been the one that had recommended this particular spot, less than 20m from the Elevator for his map stall in the first place, in exchange for a detailed map of the Wall. Since he'd set up here a few years ago, his sales had trebled.
Stu looked up once more, and saw the angry Dwarf at the window he himself had jumped out of a few seconds ago. Stu could see him considering the jump, deciding against it, and threateningly shaking his fist in Stu's direction.
Stu considered poking his tongue out, but decided not to push his luck.
“So,” Lark said, rolling up his canvas roof. “What was all that about?”
Standing up, Stu grimaced at the pain from his knee. “Goran, a Dwarf, asked me to find out if his missus was sleeping with his brother.”
Lark grunted knowingly.
“She wasn't,” Stu hastened to add. “But only because the brother doesn't like to wait in queue. Goran wasn't very happy when I told him that. My fault too, I s'pose. I probably should have found a better way of phrasing it.”
“You ever considered a diff'rent line of work, Stu?” Lark asked. “Lots of jobs going for a smart guy like you.”
Stu laughed. Sure, he had considered a different line of work. His knees would probably appreciate it if he became a butcher, or a baker, or made candles. His parents had been diplomats, and he probably could have traded on their name and been on the next ship out of there.
But he liked what he did. It kept him on the Wall, he got to meet new and interesting people, and he lived a life of…– well, not a life of luxury, but certainly he never lacked for anything.
“Thanks, Lark, but I'm happy like I am,” Stu replied, reaching into his pants and pulling out a map of the Land of Ogres. Stu's pants had more pockets than Lark had gruntal tones, and he stored everything he owned in them. “Now, I believe I promised you this for cheap.”
“Where'd you get that?” Lark grunted, his brow furrowed in suspicion. Most mapping was done by Humans, but ever since the Human-Ogre war 70 years ago, there had been tensions between the two races, and so maps of the Land of Ogres were hard to come by.
“'Swhat Goran paid me for the job. How he got it, that's a story.” It was a short story – Dwarves, annoyed by the lack of Human maps of the area, had started making their own maps - but Stu had a general rule of never giving out more information than was necessary.
“Whaddya want for it?”
“Well, when that Dwarf angrily asks you where I went, tell him I...” Stu thought quickly, and noticed the Elevator was starting to descend. “Tell him I caught the last trip of the day on the Elevator.”
Lark snorted. Stu handed over the map, and skipped off to find himself a meal.
Stu was a one-man barter system. He'd never dealt with gold, never even touched the stuff. When he wanted something to eat, he went to a restaurant, and got to chatting with the owner. Stu would casually mention important people who were coming to the Wall, perhaps drop a hint as to what their favourite meal was, maybe how one could get into contact with them (if one owned a restaurant), and bring up in conversation how good the special looked tonight.
A restaurateur who didn't offer Stu a meal on the house in exchange for a lovely (and informative) conversation would find that next time an important figure was coming to the Wall, he would be the last to know about it.
Stu's currency was Information, and he was constantly amazed at how much of people would give away for free. The elderly, particularly, would soak up almost as much gossip as he would, and then give it all away at the slightest provocation. Stu was stunned – it was like they were leaking gold, and all they wanted in return was a little conversation.
Stu was about to head around to a restaurant up the other end of the Vallum (the centre of the Wall, where most of the largest restaurants were found) when he remembered; he'd promised Ms Puce, his landlady, that he'd take his new neighbour out for dinner.
Favours, as a rule, were something that Stu avoided. They were suspiciously similar to actually working, and Stu had never done a day's work in his life. But for his landlady, that was an exception; accommodation was something which people generally insisted on getting paid for in actual gold and silver. Ms Puce, however, had known his parents, and Stu had managed to convince her that he was a one-man advertising team.
In lieu of rent, Stu ensured that everyone who was new to the Wall knew exactly where Ms Puce's apartments could be found. She had a constant flow of tenants, but Stu knew that he was on shaky ground, and so whenever Ms Puce asked a favour of him, he didn't hesitate.
“Stu!”, Ms Puce exclaimed when she saw him coming. Ms Puce was an Elf, and had been his mother's best friend from the day that she had moved onto the Wall. Stu had known her all his life, and the closest they'd come to conflict was when he was young; he'd drawn a circle with pointy ears and glasses, and written “Poos” under it. Fortunately for everyone involved, Ms Puce had had a sense of humour about it, and he suspected that she still had the scroll around her apartment somewhere.
She was a dear old girl, and if pressed, Stu would have even admitted to enjoying her company.
“Ms Puce! I'm here to pick up, uh,” Stu searched his memory. He was sure that she had mentioned his new neighbour's name at some point. “Robin! I'm here to collect Robin. Is he ready?”
“Well, I don't rightly know,” Ms Puce said, in a slightly worried tone of voice. “In fact, I'm not sure that it is a...he...at all.”
Stu took a step backwards.
“Ms Puce, are you trying to set me up? Because I don't know if you remember, but we tried this once, and your niece is a lovely girl, but it really didn't...”
“No no no,” Ms Puce replied, cutting him off before he could start recounting the disastrous first date that she had set up. “I'm just...well, you'll meet him. Her. Him. You'll see.”
Ms Puce called for Robin, and a few seconds later, an Angel walked through the door. Angels stand at about 3m high, and as most doors on the Wall were created by Humans and Dwarves, the Angel had to stoop over almost double to get through.
Stu had seen Angels before; Earlgate, the city that the Wall was built to protect, is the Angel capital. In addition to that, Angels are the most prominent race in All-That-Is; Nevah-Nevah (the Angel Islands) covering most of the world. But even if he didn't live next to the largest Angel city in the world, Angels are notorious busybodies, and have a tendency to stick their nose into every political situation. Stu's parents had been diplomats, and almost half of the issues they had to deal with pertained to the Angel's habits of policing the world.
But though he'd seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of Angels in his life (on the Mur, flying around the Wall, even the occasional Angel could be seen riding the Elevator), Stu had never before heard of an Angel actually wanting to live in the Wall.
Stu realised that he was gaping. He came to this realisation with the help of a sharp jab in the ribs by Ms Puce.
“How do you do,” he asked, holding his hand out. “Stu Wart.”
“Robin,” the Angel replied. Stu had no problem understanding why Ms Puce had found it difficult to deduce the Angel's gender; (s)he was either an extremely masculine female, or an extremely feminine male. Everything from Robin's voice to his (he) face was androgynous. She...he...”it” was even wearing unisex robes.
“I'll leave you two to get to know each other,” Ms Puce said, slightly flustered, and left the room in a hurry.
“Listen,” Stu started nervously. He'd asked a lot of questions of a lot of people in his time, but had never had to ask this one before. “Are you, uh, a, uh...”
“Angel.” Robin answered. “I am an Angel.”
“No,” Stu attempted again, with gestures to further convey his meaning. “I mean are you a...”
“I am a male.” Robin replied shortly, and after a slight pause, added “I am definitely a male.”
“Right then,” Stu said. “Shall we go?”
The Wall had existed for over 200 years, and been populated for almost all of that time. At first, the Angels had made a vague attempt to use the Wall as a military base, but this was initially taken as a hostile action by the Pirates, and with the war only resolved a few years earlier, no one wanted to stir anything up again.
And so people had flocked to the Wall. Mostly poor people, and mostly Humans and Dwarves at first. The Dwarves had industriously worked on converting the Wall from...well, from simply a “wall”, to a place to live. The Humans had been there to make sure that the doorways were large enough that people who weren't Dwarves could fit through them.
Stu wasn't sure why Robin didn't know all of this already, but he was more than happy to explain it again. Sure, it was information, but it was essentially worthless; everyone already knew this, and it wasn't anything he could barter.
“So,” Robin asked, “let me confirm the information. The people who live on top of the wall-”
“Mur, Robin. You've got to start learning the names,” Stu replied, ducking through the crowds. Robin wasn't attracting many stares; people were used to Angels visiting the Wall. It was just them living there that was unusual.
“I understand. People who live in the Mur hate people who live on the ground?” Robin said slowly.
“No,” Stu explained patiently. “The Mur is the very top of the Wall, the part where you can see the sky. Mauer is the top half of the wall; people who live in Mauer don't like people who live in the bottom half of the Wall. The bottom half being called...”
“Wando?” Robin tentatively guessed.
“The Wandle, Robin!”
“Yes, of course. And the Mauer…why is it called the Mauer?”
“I dunno,” Stu answered. He'd never actually thought about it before. “It just is.
"The Mauer is the top of the wall."
"The Mauer is the top half of the Wall,” Stu explained, slightly impatiently. “The Mauer is the top half of the Wall, the Mur is the very top. The Mur is where the markets are held, and most of the good food can be found.”
“And, uh...” Robin hesitated, but Stu gave him one of his professional “out with it” glances, and he caved instantly. “...why do the people from The Grindle not like the people from Mauer?”
“They just don't. And it's The Wandle, Robin, The Wandle.”
“Sorry.” Robin replied, sheepishly. “Where I come from, I was rarely expected to know...well, anything.”
“Where is that, Robin?” Stu asked, suddenly curious. He'd been so surprised to find an Angel who wanted to live in the Wall that he'd forgotten to actually ask the basics.
“I am from the 75th Island.”
Island 75. Island 75. Stu racked his brains, but he couldn't think of anything at all that had happened at Island 75. There were exactly 100 Angel Islands (Earlgate, where the Wall was, was Island 6) and while some of them had local nicknames, for convenience, the Central Angel Bureaucracy had just started numbering them, and now most people referred to them by number.
“Island 75,” Stu replied using his best “interested” tone. “Farming island, right?”
“That is correct,” Robin replied. “I used to be a farmer.”
Well, thought Stu, as they ascended the stairs to the Mur, that explained a lot.
It was the 48th of Sollos, the third last month of the year, and the next day was a Worship holiday, a day when the entire civilisation came together to celebrate one of the gods. This particular Worship day was for Slor, the God of Axes and Beards. As Slor was mostly worshipped by Dwarves (who made up a sizeable chunk of the Wall's population), there was a lot of excitement, and a lot people had come to the Mur for previous-night festivities.
These same people would be celebrating Slor-day hangovers, but this was a standard element of the day's events.
Stu and Robin reached the top of the stairs, and Robin, standing a full head above most others in the crowd, stopped and gazed in wonder. Stu had stopped too; not to gaze in wonder, but to inspect the crowd, get the feel of what was happening.
He didn't like what he saw.
“Wow,” Robin exclaimed. “There are...there are so many people.”
“What,” Stu replied, his mind elsewhere, “have you never seen a crowd before?”
“Not this close...” Robin replied, before noticing the worried look on Stu's face. “What is wrong?”
Stu wasn't sure exactly what was wrong. There were hundreds of people running around the Mur, looking up at the stars (which had just started to peek out – they were beginning to arrange themselves into a beard and an axe, to celebrate Slor-day) and they were, for the most part, doing exactly what you'd expect. The Dwarves were scuffing glasses of oak, the stall-keepers were peddling their wares (Stu noticed lots of little wooden axes and false beards for the children), and the Angel Guards were...
Ah, that was it. The Angel Guards were looking around nervously. Something was amiss.
“Something's up.” Stu curtly replied. He didn't want to say anything until he knew exactly what, and how much it was worth to know.
“Is it because of me?” Robin asked nervously.
“What? No, of course not.” Stu replied, distracted. After a quick glance around to make sure that there were no angry, cheated-on Dwarves nearby (they tended to stick together on Worship holidays like these) he led Robin to a nearby restaurant, and decided to see what he could find out.
The owner was nowhere to be seen, but Stu knew one of the waiters, a Gnome called Rikkard.
“Stu!” Rikkard exclaimed. “Haven't seen you around for a while!”
“Rikk,” Stu grinned. “Got a minute?”
“Not really,” Rikkard replied, already moving towards a table. “Busy night!”
“Wait here, Robin. Don't stand out.” Stu said, searched his pant pockets, found what he was after, and raced after the Gnome.
“I will wait here,” Robin said in reply, and when he realised that Stu had left, focussed on not standing out.
“Rikk, Rikk, Rikk” Stu said, as soon as the waiter had taken the table's order. “I was doing some work for a Fairy a few weeks back, and do you know what he happened to have on him?”
“Really don't have time right now, Stu!”
“He happened to have on him a certain card. A certain...magical card. A certain...Nupita card which I'm fairly sure you can't get in Nevah-Nevah yet, not even here in Earlgate.”
Nupita was a card game invented by Fairies which had spread right around the world. Small cards were imbued with illusions of magical creatures, and certain rules were followed, decks were made, and one deck of Nupita cards could somehow “battle” another. Stu had never seen the point of it, but it was immensely popular among Gnomes, and he happened to know that Rikk was a devoted collector.
Rikk stopped next to the kitchen doors. He slowly turned, a sly grin upon his knobbled face.
“Okay, what've you got?”
Stu, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the game itself, was generally able to value the cards he was receiving based on the body language of the person trading them to him. When that failed, he tracked down Ms Puce's 9 year-old nephew, and measured the squeals of delight.
“I've got a...” Stu had no idea what he had. He checked the card again. “...a Hectablon. It's got lots of, uh, energy points.”
Rikkard gave Stu a look, a look which clearly said “You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?” And then, because Gnomes don't like to rely on subtle nuances too much, said “You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?”
Stu made a mental note to learn how to play Nupita some time. His attitude towards most of life was “You never know when it'll come in handy,” and so far, it had served him quite well.
“Okay, I'll bite,” Rikkard said, deftly pocketing the card. “What do you need to know?”
“The Angel Guards,” Stu replied. “What's spookin' them?”
“No idea,” Rikkard said.
There was a brief pause, and Stu glared expectantly at Rikkard. Stu had a range of information-extracting facial expressions, and this one was particularly strong. Rikkard started to sweat under the pressure.
“What, that's all you want to know? Seriously man, I know nothing. No one's said anything, no one's done anything. I'll keep my ears open, but so far, I've heard absolutely nothing.”
Stu hadn't been expecting this, and was starting to wish that he'd offered a slightly less valuable item in trade. Or waited until he had the information before he'd let Rikkard take it. But while he was here, he might as well make the best of a bad situation.
“Oh,” he replied. “Well, if you hear anything, I'm your first port of call, understand? In the meantime, table for two.”
“Stu, I can't just do that. Look at the place! It's packed!”
“You know how much that card would have fetched on the open market?” Stu replied convincingly, and he was rewarded with a reluctant sigh, and a table for two. Waiters got a certain number of free meals every month, and a number of Rikkard's went towards Stu, in exchange for cards or information.
By the time they were seated, Stu's presence had been noticed by the owner, a Dwarf called Oldrich. Oldrich came over to the table to personally take their order, and have a chat. Oldrich was one of Stu's regulars (or perhaps the other way around), and the two had struck up a casual friendship, beyond the trading of information for food.
“Well well well,” Oldrich boomed, his voice making his presence at the table known before the rest of him had caught up. Oldrich was a Dwarf who enjoyed the benefits of owning a restaurant, and was well on the way to becoming perfectly spherical. “If it isn't the Wart. Oh, and who's this? On a date, ey?”
For a second, Stu forgot who he was dining with, but as soon as his brain caught up, he introduced Robin, emphasising that he was new to the Wall. Ever since Robin's announcement, Stu could distinctly tell that he was male, but Oldrich's confusion gave him so surprise.
“Well, what'll it be, lads?” Oldrich boomed, and whipped out a tiny scroll. He had trained all of his waiters to memorise the customer's orders, but after a few incorrect meals had been served, abandoned trying the same technique himself, and just scribbled everyone's orders down.
After they had eaten to their hearts content, and Stu had satisfied himself that Oldrich didn't know anything about the Angel Guard's shifty behaviour either, he remembered that it was Robin's first time on the Wall. It was obvious that his regular contacts weren't going to answer any questions, and so while he had a plan, it involved getting Robin into a good mood first.
“So, here we are at the Wall. Was there anything you really wanted to see?”
“I do not know,” Robin replied, after a few seconds of thought. “I do not really know what there is to see. What would you recommend?”
Stu grinned. He'd lived on the wall for almost 35 years now, and he'd never tired of seeing people's faces when the first saw the Sights.
“Earlgate” was technically only the name of the actual Island, Island 6. It was generally used, however, to refer to everything on the island, as if it were one large city. Whether or not this was true had never been officially decided – some argued that the presence of farms between some of the various areas prevented it from really being one big city, but as a rule, Earlgate was considered to include everything - all the Hands, the Docks and the Wall and as such, each of them were referred to as suburbs.
The Docks were another remnant from the Angel-Pirate War. Thousands of Pirates had been gathered to Earlgate to fight the war, and when it turned out that the War was cancelled, they'd built a large number of docks on the northern coast of the island, and declared it home. The docks sprawled all over the north coast; they were so extensive that there were people who had lived on the docks for their entire life, and never seen the ocean. (unless their floor collapsed, and they fell through and landed in it.)
A “Hand” is an Angel city; as they aren't limited to the two dimensions that those without wings are, Angels don't see the point of a city sprawling out in all directions. Instead, they build Hands – towers consisting of layer after layer stacked on top of each other, wide enough that each layer could home an entire Angel family.
The three Earlgate Hands are the largest in the world – the Left Hand and the Right Hand only stand at about 800m high, however the Centre Hand extends quite literally to the heavens. It was this Centre Hand that the Wall had been built to defend, because inside this Hand lived the Voice of Norbi.
Each God has a spokesperson, and they are known as the “Voice”. The God of Flying, is the most commonly-worshipped God among Angels, and since the Angels lived in a theocracy, the Voice of the Royal Flyness was the infallible leader of the land.
Stu knew that he didn't need to explain all this. Robin had been born and raised in Nevah-Nevah, and this was just basic geography. Even if he had somehow managed to go through childhood without this knowledge, when arriving at Earlgate he would surely have noticed the Hands sticking up out of the island, and asked questions.
But Stu explained it nonetheless. Partially because he enjoyed the sound of his own voice, but mainly because if someone is prattling on, you don't suspect that person of watching you very closely. And whenever Stu brought someone to the Southern Sight, he always watched them very closely.
As the unofficial tour guide of the Wall, Stu always ended the tour here. (other stops would inevitably include Oldrich's restaurant, and Ms Puce's Apartments, as well as the standard gimmicky locations that every town has.) He had grown used to the Sight himself, but he would never grow accustomed to the look of awe on people's faces as they gazed upon it.
Robin's face, for example, was the standard mix of awe and admiration that he was used to, but there was something else mixed in as well. Wistfulness? Sadness? Stu didn't want to ask, and so he instead stood there with Robin, looking at the Sight with him.
The Southern Sight was the point on the Wall which gave the greatest view of everything on Earlgate that was south of the Wall itself. Stu and Robin stood there for the next 20 minutes or so, watching as the day grew dim, and the lights of the three Hands began to light. Robin didn't say anything, and Stu didn't feel compelled to talk either.
When the sky completely darkened, a pitch black canvas for the stars to shine brightly from, an Angel Guard came around, to start lighting the torches that lit the Mur at night. Stu nudged Robin, snapping him out of a lazy trance, and whispered to him.
“Robin...Robin, ask that Guard what's up.”
“Pardon?” Robin replied, his face giving nothing away.
“Something's up. The Angel Guards are being...well, shifty. It's completely out of character. I want to know what's up, but they won't talk to me. Ask that Guard what's happening.”
Robin stared blankly at Stu for a few seconds, before shaking his head, very slightly.
“What? Why?” Stu asked, slightly frantically. The Angel Guard was lighting the last torch, and about to continue his round.
“I could not do that,” Robin simply replied. “I do not know him.”
“So get to know him! You don't have to be best friends with someone to ask them a question! Just go up to him, and casually try to find out why everyone is so nervous!”
“No,” Robin replied, in a tone that suggested that his word was the final say on the matter. “I am shy.”
Stu watched as the Guard walked away. Angry and frustrated, he knew that he owed a lot to Ms Puce, and so with a grimace, he snapped “follow me”, and took Robin across to the other side of the Wall, to the Northern Sight.
The Northern Sight was the Northern-most point on the Wall. It looked out over the Docks, and beyond them to the Demographic Ocean, and, on a clear day, one could see as far as the southern coast of Direnda, the Elven homeland.
With the torches lit all around the viewing platform, however, one could see...well, the torches, and that was about all. Stu furtively glanced around; they were alone on the platform, and an Angel Guard wasn't due for another hour or two.
“You know any fire spells?” he asked, and when Robin nodded his head in the affirmative, he pulled a snuffer out of his pocket, and put the torches out.
“What are you doing?” Robin asked, and followed what he could make out of Stu's hand, pointing out into the darkness.
Stu had very little light to go on, but as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could just make out Robin's face. It was gazing in absolute awe and wonderment; there was no trace of whatever other emotions that Stu had seen when they were standing at the Southern Sight. He was completely and utterly floored.
“It is beautiful,” Robin murmured. “It is so close, I feel as if I could reach out and touch it.”
Stu had heard that before. He wasn't often out here at night, but even in the darkness, even past the lights of the Docks, he could see the rolling waves of the Demographic Ocean. He stared down at the sight for a few minutes, before turning to Robin. Before he could say anything, however, Robin jumped off the edge of the Wall.
This was something that Stu had never seen before.
For a split second he tried to work out if Robin could somehow be short for “HD”, then called his name out. “Robin! Robin!!”
He heard a chuckle in return, and then the swooping of Angel wings, as Robin flew back up to Stu's height. Stu relaxed; Angels, of course, were primarily known for their large wings, and the corresponding ability to fly. When a stranger jumps off a building in front of you, the first thing to go through your mind is rarely “Did he have wings or not?”, but rather a long series of swearwords, and (if you're a natural worrier) whether or not anyone saw you come up together.
“I have never done this before,” Robin said, doing a back flip. “I can not touch the ocean, but I did not expect that I would be able to.”
“What are you doing?”, Stu hissed, before a thought struck him. “Wait, you've never flown before?”
“Not out here,” Robin answered, but before Stu could follow his train of thought, he flew up and somersaulted around. Stu watched the Angel fly around for a few minutes. It was gorgeous. Stu had seen Angels fly before, but Robin had somehow turned it into an art form.
He was surprised to see Robin abruptly change direction, and head straight towards him. His mind went through a similar thought process to the one that it had gone through a few seconds ago, but this time, he was hoping that someone had seen Robin and him head up this way together. Admittedly, Ms Puce was the only other one that knew who Robin was, and after disposing of the body, Robin was unlikely to go back to his boardings, but...
Stu was just wondering if his own initials could be worked out as “HD” when Robin pulled up abruptly in front of him, and offered him an arm.
“Would you like to fly?” Robin asked, not a trace of emotion on his face.
Stu took two steps backwards. “Thank you,” he replied, “but no.”
“Why not?” Robin asked, his brow creasing in confusion. “It is beautiful.”
“I've never left the Wall in my life, and I don't intend to now. I was born on this Wall, and I intend to die on this Wall! Besides,” he added after he noticed Robin looking unconvinced. “...I'm afraid of heights.”
Robin shrugged, and resumed flying. Stu stood there, on the edge of the wall, and simply watched him.
Timson didn't consider himself to be a bad man. Partially because he was an Elf, but mostly because he assured himself all times that his motives were good. He didn't need to assure himself of this very often; Timson was, for the most part, confident in his plans. The occasional pang of guilt would come across him when he had to do something truly heinous, but in these rare events, he would simply assure himself that his motives were good, and that he was a good person.
Had he looked at it slightly more objectively, he might have seen that ordering the death of a complete innocent, ordering the death of someone who would not only have no idea who was trying to kill them but even why…well, that would be considered by most people to be an evil act.
But Timson was lucky enough to be a “big picture” person. “Big picture” people often make plans which involve killing “small picture” people, and it's worth noting that these plans will go out of their way to avoid even putting the plan-maker into danger, even when it would make the plan go a lot simpler. So Timson, convinced (by himself) beyond all reason that he was a good person, and must thus be doing a good thing, contacted the people he needed to contact, and gave them two simple words.
“Locate and kill him.”*
*”Kill him” are the two simple words. The rest could be considered complicated, but “kill” and “him” are fairly straight-forward, provided you know who you have to kill, and exactly what “killing” is. “Locate,” it's true, is a fairly simple word, but it's got twice the number of syllables as both “kill” and “him” - the number of syllables of both words put together! “and” is a ridiculously tricky word to define, right up there with “the” and “a”. So Timson, when you think about it, really only gave them two simple words.
Stu, unaware that assassins were being sent towards him at this very moment, had been contentedly watching Robin fly for the past half hour or so. But it was starting to get late, and there's only so much wing-fluttering one can stand before tiredness begins to set in, so Stu gave a yell, and Robin landed.
“Let there be light,” Stu said, and when Robin answered him with a blank look, he sighed, and gestured to the torches. “It means light the torches. You know, create light.”
Robin nodded in the affirmative, lit the torches, and the two headed back to Ms Puce's.
They were just about to pass the Elevator, when Stu noticed a pack of ninjas. This was unusual for the Wall; ninjas, as a rule, only where the full, identifying “ninja” outfit when they were on a mission. And since ninjas were expensive assassins, it was rare that they would be sent to kill someone who lived on the Wall. It happened from time to time, but a pack of ninjas? That was an expense which few could afford.
That intrigued Stu. His curiosity very quickly turned to alarm, however, when he realised that the ninjas were looking in his direction. Alarm turned to full-blown panic when they drew their swords, and started walking in his direction. Full-blown panic turned into action (except for a little bit which leaked out into his pants) and Stu grabbed Robin and started rushing in the opposite direction.
“What is happening?” Robin asked, looking at his arm with a look of faint surprise. He wasn't used to this arm leading him around, but of course his arm wasn't usually being moved by Stu Wart, with the determination that can only come from a man with slightly wet pants.
“No time to explain,” Stu curtly replied, before realising that it was quite a simple explanation and would take no longer than it had taken him to say “no time to explain” and adding “Ninjas out to get me.”
The Ninja Code, Stu knew, was very simple. If you see the target, kill the target. If the target runs away, chase the target. If the target is with someone, that person is another target.
By grabbing Robin's arm, he may have doomed him to the kind of painful death that Stu was bound for. It was an instinctive reaction, and one that Stu hoped Robin would forgive him for. Still, it was too late now; Robin was, along with Stu, a target.
Stu ducked through the crowd, but Robin was hardly inconspicuous, and the ninjas were having no trouble tracking them. They had to get off the Mur, it was the only way that they were going to have any chance of losing them. He continued ducking through the crowds, when he heard an angered cry.
“Oy!” voice called from behind here. “You bastard!”
Stu permitted himself the luxury of turning around. He knew that it would slow him down slightly, but in his (admittedly limited) experience with ninjas, they weren't in the habit of shouting “Oy!” as they pursued their quarry.
Mentally memorising the next few steps, he allowed himself a quick glance behind him. As well as the ninjas (who were alarmingly close), he was now also being pursued by an angry cuckolded Dwarf, and his equally angry mates. In his quick glance, Stu had recognised at least two Dwarves who had also slept with Goran's wife, but he suspected that informing Goran at this point was unlikely to persuade him to drop the pursuit, even if he could convince him Without being killed by ninjas mid-explanation.
At least he was no longer holding a saucepan. The axes that the group of Dwarves were carrying could be fake wooden ones for children, but it wasn't the kind of risk that Stu liked to bet his life on. There were, in fact, very few risks that Stu would like to bet his life on, and this one wasn't even close to making the list.
Stu considered calling out “They're with me!”, but he doubted that the ninjas would be convinced. Besides, angry as Goran was, he didn't deserve to die. It was unlikely that if he ever caught up with Stu he would actually kill him, but Stu didn't think that he could convince the ninjas to give Goran and his chums a hearty beating. Ninjas, as a rule, were good at killing, hiding, and sneaking around – a list which unfortunately didn't include “being convinced to beat up Dwarves, no matter how heartily.”
So Stu continued running, grunting out “Dwarves out to get me too”, so that Robin was kept in the loop.
The chase continued, in the exciting way that chases do, and the route that Stu had decided on (based on the “which path looks like it has the least people at the moment” method of path-finding) happened to be leading them up to Mrs Limbo's kitchen.
Stu paused (not literally; pausing during a chase is quite a bad tactic) and thought. He couldn't do the same thing twice in one day...could he? Mrs Limbo had shut up early tonight so that she could go and enjoy the drinking, but he happened to know that she left the door unlocked on nights when she was going to have something to drink; she didn't like unlocking doors after a jacaranda or two.
When he'd seen her earlier, she hadn't been wearing her “drinking earrings”, had she? He tried to mentally draw the image back up, but before he had a chance to, he reached the door.
He decided to risk it, tugged Robin's arm with a signal that he intended to mean “slow down, I want to test this door” and Robin fortunately interpreted as such. (in fact, Robin thought that the signal meant “slow down, my left foot is hurting,” but either message had the same result.)
Some risks pay off. Some risks don't. But most risks just lead you down a slightly different path, not particularly advantaging or disadvantaging you. When the door opened, and Stu went through to Mrs Limbo's restaurant, he realised that this was one of those risks. On the plus side, he was now in semi-familiar territory, territory he had successfully manoeuvred earlier that day to escape chasing foes. (one of the same foes, in fact, that was chasing him now.)
On the unplus side, he was running through a kitchen with an Angel bent double. In the dark.
As Stu and Robin ran through the kitchen, Robin's wings caught on a number of pots and pans, sending them clattering to the floor. This had two unexpected side-effects; the relatively clean kitchen floors were now littered with obstacles for the foes to avoid, and causing Robin to scream in pain.
“Oh,” he moaned, “it hurts. It hurts so very much.”
Stu knew that he really couldn't afford the time, but he ducked behind a counter (the same counter he had found Mrs Limbo leaning on earlier that day, in fact) and inspected Robin's wings. They were slightly ruffled, possibly bruised, but other than that, there was nothing wrong with them. Stu looked at Robin, puzzled.
“You're fine,” he said, and would possibly have said more, but at that point he heard the cursing of a group of angry Dwarves tripping on saucepans, and the room filling with ninjas.
Stu slowly backed towards the window, making sure that Robin was by his side. The ninjas hesitated, and Stu took advantage of the few seconds that he had to whisper
“Robin...we're going to jump out the window.”
Robin opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, the lead ninja lunged forwards, and Stu grabbed Robin's hand, and, for the second time that day, propelled himself head-first out of a second-storey window.
As a rule, Stu didn't like to make impulse decisions. He was a leisurely thinker; he liked to mull things over, take the time to reflect on his choices. This way, he could explore all the possibilities, and take every factor into account.
For instance, if Stu had to jump out of a window, he would want to sit down and calculate a few things ahead of time. He'd want to know how high the window was, what the cause was for him to be jumping out of a window in the first place (which he would then appropriately balance up against the potential harm that comes from falling great heights) and most importantly – what was at the bottom of the fall.
Stu knew, from first-hand experience, the height of the window. He didn't know with 100% certainty what awaited him if he didn't jump out of the window, but from the look of the ninjas' weapons, and the (possibly wooden) axes being brandished by the group of angry Dwarves, he could guess.
What he did know, but hadn't taken into account when he made the impulse decision to jump, was what awaited him at the bottom of the fall. Not, as had been the case earlier that day, a canvas roof, but the much less enjoyable-to-land-on “map stall where a canvas had been minutes earlier.”
Stu expected his life to flash before his eyes, as he hurtled towards the pile of rolled-up maps which would surely be the death of him. Instead, to his surprise, he started to feel like he was floating. He looked at the pile of maps, and they seemed to be getting smaller and smaller...it was as if he was being taken to the Land of Gods. Perhaps, he reasoned, this was what happened when one died.
After a few seconds Stu realised that the pile of maps wasn't getting smaller; he was, indeed, ascending. He was now level with the window once more, and could see a glimpse of a brief argument, between ninjas and Dwarves. Stu looked at his feet, and noticed that Robin was clutching it, and flapping his wings.
“Sorry,” Robin said, in response to Stu's surprised glance. “I did not know what your plan was. I hope that I have not ruined it.”
“No, no,” Stu replied, “honestly, this is fine. Uh, where are you taking us?”
“I thought the roof would be a safe place,” the Angel replied, and since that's where they were, he let go of Stu, and the two of them stood, looking out over the Wall.
For obvious reasons, Stu had never been on top of the roof of one of the towers. He could see all of the Mur from up here; the partying had started to die down, but there were still hundreds of people around. From where he was standing, he couldn't see either of the Sights, but if he walked around the roof, he would easily be able to.
Stu was just about to do that, when he noticed a rope fly up to the roof, and land right next to his foot. This wouldn't have presented a problem, but attached to the end of the rope was a grappling hook, and had Stu been standing slightly to the right, that grappling hook would now have been inside his foot.
Stu saw the rope attached to hook start to tense, and quickly kicked the hook out, and watched it clatter down the roof. He prayed that it wouldn't catch once more, and when it fell down off the roof, he breathed a sigh of relief.
A few seconds later, five more hooks came flying towards Stu and Robin, and they both took several steps backwards. Robin grabbed Stu's arm, and bent his knees, prepared to fly again.
“No!” Stu whispered urgently. “We got lucky at the window; they were distracted by the Dwarves. If we fly here, you'll be torn to shreds. You know what a shuriken is, right?”
Robin's blank look clearly explained that he did not. Stu sighed.
“No time to explain!," he exclaimed, accurately this time. "Let's get out of here!”
The trouble with a round roof is that short of burrowing through the tiles and landing inside the building below, there isn't very far that one can run. Stu and Robin ran to the other side of the roof (from here, Stu could look down over a whole new section of the Mur) before they realised this.
They were about to leap off the other side of the building, and risk the shurikens, when another three grappling hooks came up where they were standing, followed by ropes, followed very shortly afterwards by ninjas.
At this point, the ninjas from the other side of the building caught up, and Stu and Robin stood, trapped between them. For a few seconds, Stu hoped against hope that these ninjas were with a different group, perhaps these were three super-ninjas, sent to battle the ninjas that were chasing them. Perhaps these were protection-ninjas, sent my a caring third party to prevent he and Robin from being killed.
But somehow, he doubted it.
The first seed of doubt was planted in his mind when, rather than killing each other, the two groups of ninjas joined together, and formed a circle around himself and Robin. This was standard procedure for ninjas of the same team, and extremely rare in ninjas who are trying to kill each other.
“You,” Robin whispered, breaking Stu away from his train of thought, “You take the four in front of us, I'll take the four behind.”
Good Gad, he wanted to fight them.
“That,” Stu replied in a whisper, “would be an incredibly bad idea.”
A few years ago, a mathematician had come to the Wall. Stu had, like most people, been raised to believe that maths was a myth, like “algebra”, or “horses”. Counting was acceptable, but anything past about 200 was probably pushing it a bit, and any child who suggested, say, splitting items into equal groups and then counting the groups was quickly slapped around the ears.
Mathematics. It probably wasn't real, but if it was, it was dangerous and not to be messed with
So Stu had been surprised and suspicious when a man had turned up claiming to be a mathematician. Not to the population at large, of course, they had known each other for several months before he revealed his true nature, and offered to teach Stu a bit of maths.
Reluctant at first, Stu had quickly warmed into it, and learned a few of the basics. He could never be a mathematician himself – he didn't have “the gift” - but he'd learned enough to spot another mathematician if he needed to.
One of the most useful pieces of mathematical knowledge that Stu had been taught was from one of the trickiest areas; “Ninja Maths”. Stu learned the fundamental rule of Ninja Maths:
“The total combat ability of a unified group of ninjas is equal to the combat level of the average ninja in the group.”
It was a bit tricky (words like “average” and “group” had a completely different meaning in Mathematics than it did in the rest of the world) but essentially, it meant that dividing a group of ninjas was a bad idea. Ninjas, obviously aware of this rule, tended to encircle their targets, and then go out one by one to fight them. This way, their fighting capability was maximised.
The best way to take on a group of ninjas was all at once. It was exactly as difficult as fighting one of them, but if you took them out, you took them all out at once.
Stu knew how well he'd stand up in a fight against ninjas. He had once lost a fight against a Fairy, and Fairies stood at about one quarter his height. Stu was an ideas man, a thinker, not a fighter.
But Robin...Stu glanced over at the Angel, who stood at...well, he was at least six times as big as the fairy who had beat him up so many months ago. But more than that, Robin was an Angel, and they were generally known for their ability to “defend justice”, an ideology which often expressed itself in a physical way.
“You fight them,” Stu whispered. “I'll watch.”
After a brief pause, Stu added “Trust me,” and that seemed to work. Robin held up his fists, and dove at the nearest ninja.
“Fight them all at once!”, Stu instructed, and ducked to the ground, hoping that the ninjas would focus on Robin, or think he was dead or something. He rolled himself closer to the edge of the roof – he hoped that he wouldn't have to resort, once more, to falling off the tower, but if it came to it, he wanted it as an option.
To his surprise, Robin was a truly terrible fighter. The ninjas had pulled out nun-chucks, weapons which appear to be designed to damage the person using them, and were giving him what looked to be quite a solid beating. Robin's cries of pain were quickly turning to gurgles.
Stu wasn't a professional healer, but he was able to read basic medical signs, and gurgling wasn't a good one. Clearly brawn was not the way to go, which only left brain, and Stu's brain was filled mainly with information and severely lacking in anything useful in a fight.
As Stu searched his memory for anything, anything at all that could get them out of their current situation, the ninjas backed off. They sheathed their nun-chucks (Stu assumed, anyway. One minute they were there, and the next minute he couldn't see them anywhere. He would have assumed magic, but ninjas were notorious for never using magic, spending decades learning how to hide in plain sight, rather than just using an invisibility spell.) and stepped back.
The lead ninja stepped forwards, pulled out his hatori, (the carefully-constructed swords that ninja get upon completing their training) and held it above Robin's battered body.
There was a pause, and Stu would be lying if he said that at that instant, the thought of escape didn't pass his mind. The ninjas seemed to have completely forgotten about him; ninja honour probably caused them to kill whoever fought hardest first. He could roll off the roof, and (assuming he survived), make a run for it.
A truly good man probably wouldn't have had that flicker of betrayal cross his mind. On the other hand, a truly bad man wouldn't have had the thought pass through his head either – he would have simply acted on it without even having to consider his actions in the first place.
Stu was neither a truly good man or a truly bad man – most people come somewhere in the middle. He was, however, more good than he was bad, and so even though a thought of self-preservation at the expense of Robin did cross his mind, he ignored it, and it went away as quickly as it had arrived.
The urgency of the situation meant that Stu's thought process was racing at a speed much, much greater than it normally did. It no longer followed the rules of grammar, there were no sentences, and in the interest of time, he combined some words into two.
daynight...slor...noaxe nobeard...ninjas...dark...dark...magspellight! Robimagspellightfiwinnomoninjas!!
A second after he'd started thinking, a sentence urgently burst out of his lips, and made its way over to Robin's ears. A few seconds later, the ninjas all winced, and gave Stu a few seconds, which he made the most of – he ran over, grabbed Robin, and the two of them rolled off the roof.
The ninjas were left there, stunned and temporarily blinded, with Robin's command ringing in their ears: “Let there be light!!”
For someone afraid of heights, Stu pondered, he certainly spent a lot of time falling. It wouldn't have been too bad if it was forced upon him, but the fact was, in the past few hours, he'd thrown himself directly into more than one situation which involved a sharp drop and a heavy landing. All of them off the same tower, he realised after another second's pause.
It wasn't exactly heights that Stu was afraid of. He had always loved going up and down the Elevator as a child, and just like all the other children raised on the Wall, had spat down the shaft when the Elevator was at the bottom (and been appropriately punished for it.) Even looking down the shaft, down the 500m drop, Stu hadn't been scared. He could still do it without blinking.
What Stu feared was not having the Wall beneath him. He knew his way around the Wall – nine out of ten times, he could use that knowledge to get out of trouble. And even if he was falling to his almost-certain death, he'd rather be doing it on the Wall. On the Wall, people would recognise him, and know where to send flowers, if nothing else. Here, he meant something.
Off the Wall, he was just another nobody. He was just another body that needed burying.
Jumping out of towers: Stu had cleverly deduced a landing once, gotten lucky and been rescued by Robin's ability to fly once, but this time, with no information to help him land, and Robin incapacitated, Stu wasn't quite so lucky.
Their fall was broken by the Wall. The Wall was primarily made out of stone, and it is not a pleasant thing to have a fall broken by. Robin, who was already in quite a lot of pain at the time of the fall, seemed to have fallen unconscious, and was bleeding quite heavily. Stu, who had been in a relatively pain-free state before landing, was still conscious, but was considering biting an arm off or doing anything that would cause enough blood loss to knock him out.
Stu tried to lay extremely still for a few minutes. He could still hear Robin breathing, but it was clear that if he was left in this state, he was unlikely to last long. He could hear the last few Dwarves (and other beard/axe aficionados) partying, but it was obvious that it was winding down. He mentally tried to work out where they had landed, based on the part of the tower that they'd been on, but the pain was making it hard to think, and eventually, he realised that he'd just have to have a look.
Slowly, cautiously, and excruciatingly painfully, he raised his head. It looked like he was in an alley. Above him, on Mrs Limbo's tower roof, he could see two ninjas, looking out over the area for them. His light trick had temporarily blinded them, and they wouldn't have been able to see which way he and Robin fell, whether or not they'd run around to another part of the tower and jumped off there or not. He knew that he had to keep absolutely silent – the slightest noise could cue them to his location.
He glanced over to Robin (another bad idea – his neck almost quit entirely on him, but fortunately the rest of his body seemed to have taken the brunt of the fall. His head and neck were mostly undamaged, though he was sure that his legs hadn't bent that way before.) to make sure that he wasn't going to moan, or grunt, or any other small noise that would give away their whereabouts.
The alley that they'd landed in appeared to be incredibly dark. Stu could see out of it, but (from what he could see of their faces) the ninjas seemed to be skipping over it in their glances. The smell would suggest that they were in the alley that Mrs Limbo used to dispose of her garbage. They could safely hide in the garbage until the festivities were over, at which point it would be loaded onto the Elevator, and they could...well, they could work it out from there.
Another painful glance over at Robin suggested that this was not the best plan of action. He didn't look like he was going to last until daylight, let alone several days, underneath a lot of garbage.
Ninjas weren't easy to defeat. Their sense of honour caused them to keep on coming until they killed the target, or the target killed them. This made them popular (but expensive) assassins, and Stu suspected that if they stayed where they were, it wouldn't be long until the ninjas stopped sweeping the area from the tower, and started exploring manually.
Stu wasn't a trained magician, wizard, or sorcerer. All people are capable of some magic, and some are naturally better at it than other. Stu had picked up the odd spell here and there, but as a rule, he preferred to rely on his own luck. But it seemed that his own luck had run out some time ago.
Stu searched his memory for any kind of spell that would be useful. As a Human, he wasn't naturally magic, and because he didn't practice very often he knew that his chances were slim, but he was sitting next to an unconscious Angel in a garbage alley, with most of his bones broken. His chances were already slim.
A light spell would be suicide, as would any kind of “loud noises” spell. The most useful spell in his memory would be some kind of “movement” spell, and Stu wasn't sure if he had it in him to cast two of them.
Still, perhaps getting Robin to a healer would mean that the healer could revive him, Robin could tell the whole story, and they'd form some kind of army to save his life.
Or maybe he could just cast a “solve all my problems and clear up my skin while you're at it” spell.
Stu sighed, a painful move that he quickly regretted, and realised that he had no choice. He made the appropriate hand-movements, said the appropriate words, and visualised the home of Sandra Twopenny – a Fairy Healer who lived nearby.
Stu was rewarded with the sight of Robin's unconscious body lifting slightly, and slowly moving in the direction of the Healer. The spell wasn't really supposed to move living creatures, but Robin was moving so little that he probably classified as “inanimate”, and Stu hoped that casting it on himself would work the same way.
Drained, Stu tried to recall the movements he'd just made, and the words he'd just spoken. He was starting to feel tired and sluggish – the spell had taken a lot out of him – but he knew that he didn't have much time.
Clearly, he realised, the most logical course of action was to preserve what little energy he had left, so that the spell would have more of a chance of working. There was no point in casting it now, when he was exhausted, he'd have a much better chance if he just lay back, relaxed for a few minutes, and then (imbued with new energy) cast the spell with everything he had.
Stu lay his head back against the hard ground, and closed his eyes. A little nap, that would clear his mind, and allow him to focus on the task at hand. Yes, a lovely little nap, then he'd be refreshed enough to cast a spell..
Something about this logic niggled at the back of his head, but he ignored it, lay his head back, and allowed himself to pass out.
The ninjas looked out over the Mur, slightly nervous. “Nervous” isn't typically a term that one associates with ninjas, despite the alliterative potential. But ninjas, when it comes down to it, are people too. They're particularly ruthless people, who dress all in black and kill for a living, but they're people nonetheless.
Stu woke up, expecting to be groggy, or at least in pain. To his surprise though...he felt fantastic. Was he dead? He'd done enough ridiculous manoeuvres lately to warrant death, perhaps he'd died and just hadn't noticed it.
Stu sat up, and looked around the room he was in. He was lying on a bed. As far as he could remember, not a single religion said anything about lying on a bed after death. A few mentioned pillows, but he'd always taken that to be a metaphor about eternal comfort, rather than a literal description of what would be in the room with him.
It wasn't even a particularly comfortable bed.
The last thing he remembered was passing out in an alley, and now he was in an uncomfortable bed. He looked at himself for scratches or bruises. There were none visible on his arms, and he wasn't sure that he wanted to take any clothes off. Was nudity allowed in the afterlife? Would he even have his...everything that he'd had when living? At this point, he wasn't sure that he wanted to find out. He sure if he could cope with any more bad news.
Daylight was streaming through the window, and Stu looked around, blinking slightly. He was a worshipper of Gad, the God of Gossip, but he wasn't particularly fervent about it. He didn't, for instance, do the Ritual of Glass-to-the-wall every night, or go to temple. He still read the Gospel every week, of course, but that was mainly to keep up on news. (Gad's Gospel was re-released 6 times a month, with updates on Inter-God relationships, Divine Goings-Ons, and fashion tips.)
A more dedicated follower, Stu pondered, would probably know exactly what Gad prophesied was due for his worshippers after death, but all he could recall was something about “an ear at every door” and “eyes able to see through the smallest keyhole.” Whether or not pillows and uncomfortable beds were mentioned, he wasn't sure.
He was still reflecting on this when the door opened, and a Fairy walked in.
Fairies are the smallest of the races on All-That-Is, but what they lack in size, they more than make up for in magical ability. A fully-grown Fairy would only come up to Stu's knee, but would be able to turn that knee into a handy step-ladder with just the a snap of its fingers.
The Fairy came over to the bed where Stu was lying, and with a flick of her wings, was standing on his chest. Without a word, she poked and prodded his eyes and nose, checked the colour of his tongue, and sniffed his hair.
Her examination complete, she grinned.
“Heya Stu. You were barely in one piece when I found you. What happened?”
Stu relaxed. Sandra Twopenny was the best Healer on the Wall (the precise magical skill that Fairies possessed helped no end) and while he wasn't sure how she had found him, he was glad that she had. Stu had seen Sandra reattach limbs, a few broken bones was going to be no sweat. And it was nice not being dead, too.
“Ninjas,” Stu replied shortly. He wasn't sure how much he wanted to let people know, but Sandra had just saved his life, and he was fairly sure that she wasn't even going to charge him for it. Stu had been instrumental in setting up her business, and he'd never asked for anything in return.
He knew that in his line of work, there'd come a day when he needed a healer.
Sandra raised one perfectly-formed blue eyebrow, and her mouth twisted into a worried expression.
“Ninjas are expensive, Stu. What do you know?”
“Everything,” Stu replied automatically. “But I don't know what I know, or who wants to get me for it.”
Sandra sighed, and there was a brief pause. From the next room, Robin's immaculately formed words could be heard.
“Thank you, but I would rather keep my robe on, if you do not mind. Yes, I am aware that it has the stain of blood on it, but I have the ability to deal with that myself.”
Stu raised his eyebrows inquisitively, and Sandra smiled.
“Don't worry, your friend's fine. You know, until I...well, until I had a look, I wasn't quite sure what I was dealing with. He's got earring holes, you know?”
Stu hadn't noticed, but wasn't surprised. He'd spent his whole life on the Wall, where things made a certain amount of sense. To his mind, people off the Wall could be a little...well, a little off the wall, and farmers were probably worse than the rest. Stu didn't understand how anyone could live anywhere but the city. Deliberately surrounding yourself with nothing but animals and plants, and lots of open space, and see the same people day in and day out...well, no wonder the poor guy had experimented. He must have been going mad with boredom before moving here.
Sandra flitted over to the window, and peered out. Stu got out of bed, and joined her. It looked like Slor festivities were in full swing. Judging by the number of trunts left at the trunt-stall, it was probably just after midday.
“We probably should be getting out of here,” Stu said, and Sandra nodded. “Uh, thanks for all your help."
Sandra just nodded again, and daintily flew out of the room. She returned a few seconds later, Robin following shortly behind her. Sandra had obviously prepared for all races when building this room; Stu hadn't noticed until now, but the doorways were huge, the ceilings high.
“I don't know what kind of trouble you're in boys,” Sandra said, “but I've patched you up okay. Look after yourself. There's a trap door under the bed, it'll take you down about twenty stories. Will you be okay from there?”
Stu nodded, and Robin stared blankly, as he so often did. Sandra, unlike most, held his glance, and after a few seconds, he said something.
“Thank-you, Miss Twopenny. Your service in our time of need will not be forgotten.”
Stu was slightly taken aback. Robin didn't just thank someone, he made it sound like a regal proclamation. But Sandra didn't seem surprised. She nodded, turned around, and walked out of the room without making a sound.
Robin easily lifted the bed out of the way, and the two of them started down the ladder within. They were about halfway down the dark shaft when Robin asked a question that he'd obviously been sitting on for a while.
“Does this happen often to you, Stu Wart?”
“Climbing down a friend's trapdoor instead of celebrating Slor-day? No, Robin, this isn't something I engage in regularly.” Stu replied, slightly snappishly. He liked little wooden axes and fake beards. Besides which, Worship Holidays were the best time to get information from people off the Wall. A dispute between two neighbouring farms could turn into inflated prices in a few week's time, and Stu liked to be ahead of the curve on pieces of news like that.
“That is not what I meant,” Robin replied. “I meant do you often get chased by people wanting to kill you?”
“I know what you meant,” Stu sighed. “I occasionally get an angry husband after me, or a businessman who doesn't like me helping his rivals. But ninjas? That's new to me.”
“Because they are expensive,” Robin replied, after a few seconds thought. “Is that correct?”
“Yup. Anyone who can afford ninjas would have to be loaded, crazy-rich. I don't know what they'd want with me. I must know something big, something huge.”
“What do you know?” Robin asked. They were almost at the bottom of the shaft.
“Rob,” Stu replied, “if I told you everything I knew, it'd take enough time that we could go up and down this shaft a million times. They could tear down the Wall looking for us, and I still wouldn't be past the 'a's.”
“Robin,” Robin said. “My name is not Rob. It is Robin.”
“No problem, Robin,” Stu said, and jumped off the ladder. When you had a name like “Wart”, you didn't mess with other people's.
“Are you sure that we are not being chased because of me?”
Stu laughed. “Unless you've pissed off a rich guy lately, I think we're pretty safe. I'm sorry I got you into all this.”
“Do not worry,” Robin said, turning to face Stu. Stu had never noticed, but Robin's eyes were a striking shade of grey. In fact, until this second, Stu hadn't even realised that there was such things as a striking shade of grey. “I came here for adventure and excitement. I came here to live.”
“Lucky you,” Stu replied with a roll of his eyes. “Welcome to life on the Wall, hey?”
Most of the Mur was covered in restaurants, stalls, and other small businesses. Big restaurants like Mrs Limbo's had a full tower to themselves, others had small kitchens and buildings, but the really cheap places were simply a few tables and chairs, and a counter to order from. The food was prepared elsewhere in the Wall, and dropped off twice a day. All they did up on the Mur was reheat and serve it.
The cheaper the kitchen, the further down the Wall it can be found. (to a point. Once you reach halfway, the further down the Wall, the more expensive the restaurant: The Wandle, the bottom half of the Wall, has all its restaurants on the ground floor.) Twenty storeys down, the kitchens are starting to get pretty dodgy, and it was to a dodgy kitchen called “Jamboree” that Stu and Robin were headed now.
Stu, due to the nature of his job, had a part in getting a lot of businesses started. Jamboree was not one of those. Stu's association with Jamboree was because of the less pleasant part of his job; rather than trading information, trading on not having information.
The Wall didn't have any “health inspectors” like they did in the Hands. No one was interested enough in paying them. Over in the Hands, the Angel Theocracy collected enough in taxes that they could have paid for one thousand health inspectors, but since the population of Angels on the Wall was negligible, they didn't bother. Technically the Wall was part of Earlgate, but it operated fairly independently.
As such, if a restaurant started using rart-meat and calling it something else, technically there was nothing that anyone could do about it. Except, for example, if one were in the position of distributing a lot of information to a lot of potential customers. Stu had casually mentioned this to the owner. (he had also casually mentioned that a handful of people knew that he was going to casually mention this, and that if Stu were to casually disappear, there would be a less-than-casual criminal investigation.)
Jim Jambo, owner of Jamboree, didn't have anything that Stu particularly needed, and so instead, Stu was simply “owed a favour”. Blackmail was an ugly word, and one that honestly had never crossed Stu's mind. He'd never thought of it as blackmail, just two men doing business.
“Seventy-three...seventy-four...ah, here we go....” Stu muttered, as they walked. They had come out on the 23rd floor BTM (“Below the Mur”) and Stu had just taken them down another two. Stu lived on the third floor down from the Mur, and he wasn't accustomed to travelling this far down. But as long as he was hiding from ninjas, the further down the better. No one came down this far unless they had to, and it would buy them at least a few days.
Robin stared at the door that they were about to enter. He stood a good 3m high, and this door looked like it was barely half that. He would have to crawl on his hands and knees to get through this, and he'd be lucky if he didn't snag his wings.
“Stu Wart, is there no other place that we can go?”
“Sorry Robin,” Stu replied, “It's gotta be here.”
“I do not believe I will fit.”
Stu turned to look at Robin. They'd known each other for less than a day now, but in that time, they'd fought off angry ninjas, run away from axe-wielding Dwarves, and stood together under the starlight, at the Southern Sight, the most beautiful place on the Wall.
Through all that, Stu hadn't heard anything more than the slightest tinge of emotion in Robin's voice. But when it came to stooping down and crawling through a door, he sounded...worried?
“'Course you'll fit, Rob,” Stu replied, catching himself almost immediately. “Robin. What's wrong? Not claustrophobic, are you?”
“I am not afraid of confined spaces, Stu Wart. I am just not sure that it would be appropriate.”
Stu gave Robin a look.
“Robin, I assure you, it's fine. You can come through that door, or you can hang out here in the corridor for the rest of your life. It's your call,” and with that, he'd opened the door and slipped through.
A few seconds later, Robin awkwardly crawled through the door. His face, normally so blank, was red as the ace of tridents. He was actually embarrassed, Stu realised.
Inside the kitchen, two Gnomes were hard at work, cutting sandwiches, slicing up meat, preparing appels. One of them glanced up at Robin and Stu, but with no reaction, went back to preparing meals. From the next room, the sound of snoring could be heard. Robin and Stu glanced at each other, and Stu walked over to the doorway.
In the next room, a Demon was sprawled over a desk, snoring loudly. Demons (or, as they prefer to be called, “Underlings”) are the second smallest of all the races, and generally considered to be the least trustworthy. Part of this is simple racial stereotyping – they are said to have “shifty eyes”, “suspicious grins”, and the slight red tinge to their skin is considered “extremely dodgy”. But mostly this is because they're completely untrustworthy, something that they themselves would admit, except no one would believe them anyway.
Demons are considered to be perfect candidates for managerial positions.
Stu cleared his throat loudly, and the Demon snapped awake. In one swift movement, he woke up, spun over, landed behind the desk, and had a hand crossbow pointed at them. They both slowly raised their arms in a gesture of surrender, and in a high-pitched voice, he asked them who they were.
“My name's Stu Wart. Jambo said that was all I'd have to say.”
The Demon lowered his crossbow, and nodded at Robin.
“Who's the Angel?”
“He's with me. We need a place to hide out for a few days.”
“I am going to put my hands down now, if that is acceptable,” Robin said, and at a nod from the Demon, he lowered his hands, and ruffled his wings slightly.
Demons and Angels were always slightly uncomfortable around each other. Angels, with their love of law and order, doing good for good's sake, and living life with honour and nobility were bound to clash with Demons, whose world view could be described as “Get it done, screw the rules.”
The Demon reached into his top drawer, and pulled out a number of keys. He whispered something under his breath, and one of the keys changed shape before their eyes. Demons are second only to Fairies in magical abilities, another quality which makes a lot of people dislike them. Magic is everywhere, and people as a rule don't have a problem with magic-users, (Fairies are the least disliked race in All-That-Is. They're not allied with everyone, but they have no enemies) but people distrust Demons on principle, and magic makes it harder to see everything that they do.
He walked over to a wall, and murmured another phrase under his breath. What had looked like a carpet suddenly slithered over to the wall, and turned into a door.
“I'll have to lock you in here,” he whined. Stu could sense Robin stiffening up behind him.
“Fine,” Stu replied. “There's food?”
“It's the storage room,” the Demon replied. “You can eat whatever you like, just write it down in the log-book. If you need the facilities, knock twice.. If you need anything else, write it down, and slip it under the door. There's parchment and quill within.”
“Thank-you,” said Stu.
“Wait,” Robin urgently said, as Stu started to open the door. “You can not surely believe that the best location for us is-”
“Trust me,” Stu pointedly whispered, aware of the Demon's large eyes watching his every move. “I know what I'm doing.”
Stu didn't have a lot of experience with Angels. The Angel Guard were a constant presence on the Mur, but they weren't talkative. A good percentage of tourists who came to the Wall were Angels, but Stu didn't make a habit of talking to them. He was a Human, and there was no lost love between the two races. Stu found that he had a better time talking to Dwarves, Gnomes, Elves...they were the closest neighbours to the Human homeland, and they were more open to a chat.
So Stu was genuinely curious as to how Robin would react next. In his first day in the big city (as the Wall undoubtedly was, compared to a farm) he had been chased, almost killed, rolled off a roof, and now threatened by a pipsqueak holding a hand-crossbow. He would be well within his rights to refuse to enter a locked room he'd never seen before, trusting his life and his privacy to a Demon he had no reason to trust. He didn't know what Stu knew, and so he was taking a much larger risk.
There was a pause, and even the Demon seemed to lean forward in anticipation, his finger unconsciously stroking the trigger of his hand-crossbow.
“I shall trust you, Stu Wart,” the Angel replied, and despite having to bend almost double as he swept through the entrance to the storeroom, Gad-damn it, he managed to look dignified while doing it.
Once they were inside the storeroom, and the door was closed (Stu could hear the Demon locking it from the other side, and then a slithering noise which he presumed was the transformation of the door into a carpet) once more, Robin exploded.
Well, as close to exploding as Robin got, anyway.
“Stu Wart,” the Angel started, a hint of anger apparent in his voice, “can you please explain to me why you have allowed a Demon, of questionable trustworthiness to lock us into a storeroom? I have nothing against Demons as a race, but this one certainly did not appear to be looking out for our best interests.”
“Relax,” Stu replied, taking a screwdriver out of his pocket, “I know the owner. He owes me a favour.”
“Relax?” Robin asked, the hint of anger starting to grow, “Stu Wart, I know that we have faced adversary multiple times in the past day, but I must confess – I have not been entirely impressed with your methods of dealing with said adversary!”
Stu stopped unscrewing one of the storage-room shelves, and turned to face Robin. That was the closest he'd seen to the Angel losing his temper – he must have been sitting on that particular egg for a few days now.
“Robin, believe me when I say relax. I chose this restaurant for a reason – the owner owes me a favour, but I wouldn't be surprised if that Demon was sending a message to the Mur right now, trying to work out who was after us, and how much gold they'd pay for our location.”
“I'm not only expecting it,” Stu continued, not allowing Robin time to interrupt him and build up his anger again, “I'm depending on it. We're going to build ourselves a little ninja-trap. As soon as the ninja opens the door, he'll be boxed up, and at our mercy.”
“I do not understand your plan. What do you intend to do with the ninja once we capture him? His fellow ninjas are not likely to allow us to depart, not to mention the Demon who runs this establishment.”
“I thought I told you,” Stu replied with a grin. “I chose this restaurant for a reason.”
Stu turned around, and resumed unscrewing the storage-room shelf. He lifted the top shelf off, which left him enough room to open a trap-door in the ceiling. It was almost completely invisible when closed – Stu had knowingly found a small indent in the ceiling, which he used as a handle.
Robin stood there silently. Robin stood silently a lot of the time, and Stu felt that he was starting to pick up on his different moods. This “standing silently” seemed to be indicative of an contemplative impressed surprise.
Stu started sifting through the contents of the storage room, looking for anything that could be used to make a “ninja-trap”. After a minute, Robin spoke.
“Where does it lead?”
“What, the trap-door? Just up to the next floor, into an abandoned apartment. At first, the apartment was deliberately kept infested so that no one would rent it – these days, no one's keeping it infested deliberately, but no one's cleaning it up, either. Not a lot of demand for space down here.”
The Wall didn't officially belong to anyone; the Angels who created it had abandoned it shortly after they'd finished building it, and for a few years, the only people who had visited the Wall were Angel tourists, who would fly to the top, and look out at the Sights.
Originally designed for defense, the Wall had been made out of solid stone. Dwarves from the Docks had heard about this great Angel construct, and a group of them had gone out to see what could be made of it. It was one of the Humans with the group that had come up with the idea – with a little work, sections of it could be hollowed out, and people could live inside.
Originally, the demand had been for the area at the bottom of the Wall – a large group of Dwarves had moved to the base of the Wall to start the hollowing-out process (Dwarves, experienced miners, knew exactly how much stone could be taken away without weakening the structure) and a small settlement had built up at the bottom, which had been named Wandle after the human who originally suggested turning the Wall into a city. Travelling tradesmen would now stop at Wandle, and rooms closest to the bottom had easiest access to these tradesmen, and the monthly markets which inevitably sprung up whenever they arrived.
The Dwarves had kept the very lowest storeys of the Wall for themselves; as more Dwarves moved into the Wall, the settlement grew smaller, and soon, it was the bottom half of the Wall itself that was called The Wandle. Other rooms could be purchased – for a set fee, the Dwarves would carve you out a room, and clever entrepreneurs started to pay for sets of rooms, and soon entire floors.
The higher the room, the less a Dwarf would charge to carve it out – after all, who would really want to live in a location more than a days travel from the Wandle Markets? As such, a mere a pittance was paid for the rooms that would later become Mrs Limbo's Apartments.
Once the Dwarves reached the top, and the entire Wall had been carved out and converted into a city, people started regularly travelling to the top of the Wall to see the Sights. Soon, markets had sprung up on the top of the Wall, and Angels from the Hands started attending them – the top of the Wall being much easier for them to access than the lower half. The top half of the Wall was named “Mauer”, for reasons unknown, and the markets that had sprung up along the top were known as the Mauer Markets, commonly abbreviated to “The Murkets”, and later still, simply known as “The Mur”.
Apartments and rooms near the Mur were suddenly in huge demand, and many who lived up there had regretted only buying one, rather than a whole storey. People stopped travelling down to the Wandle Markets – why bother, when the Murkets were so close? The storeys in the middle, the parts which didn't really belong to Mauer or The Wandle became the least valuable places to live, and a casual rivalry sprung up between Mauer and The Wandle – people from The Wandle being referred to as “Beardies”, due to the largely Dwarven population, and those who lived in Mauer being known as “Air-heads”.
Due to the high population of Angel tourists, a number of Angel Guards had been assigned to watch over the Mur, and over time, had taken over duties such as the lighting of the fires. In The Wandle, the Dwarves who owned the lower few storeys had hired guards to keep the peace, and encourage tourism – technically they had no legal standing, but were known to be fiercely loyal warriors with the unspoken support of the Angel Guard, and people rarely messed with them.
The Elevator had been built partially for tourists, those who were born in Mauer and wished to visit The Wandle (and vice-versa), but primarily for the transportation of goods: The Wandle was right next to the land-farms, while Mauer had regular contact with the Angels who ran the air-farms.
“Does the Demon know about the trap door?” Robin asked, his face still blank – but a blank that Stu was able to read, and the emotion he read made him proud of his little plan.
“Nah,” Stu said, throwing an empty sack onto the “may be useful” pile. “It was built years ago, and this place has changed hands three times since then.”
Stu had heard about the trapdoor from one of the builders; a Vampire was moving in, and he'd wanted an emergency escape. Vampires weren't completely unheard of in Mauer, but they were rare; they were generally found in larger numbers down in The Wandle. Vampires weren't fond of the daylight.
The builder who had been commissioned to create the trapdoor had come to Stu for help – he wanted to make sure that the creation of the trapdoor wouldn't weaken the Wall as a whole (normally any alterations to apartments had to go through official channels, but the vampire hadn't wished to advertise his existence.) Stu had brought the question up as a hypothetical with a Dwarf that he knew, and had passed the information on to his builder friend – in return, he'd installed a similar door into Stu's apartment, leading to the corridor above.
Stu had filed away the information for a rainy day, and when the Vampire had been caught and lynched by the mob (an act which was frowned upon by the Angel Guards – they preferred a fair trial, but rarely intervened when a vampire was the target of a mob lynching) he'd kept track of who was renting the apartment, right up until Jim Jambo had rented it, and used the vampire's old coffin-room as a storeroom.
“Then how,” Robin asked, “do you know about its presence?”
“Because,” Stu replied, with a tone that could easily have been taken as smug, “It's what I do.”
Stu was amazed. Everything had gone according to plan. In the past few days, nothing had gone according to plan for him. He'd assumed that it had been the universe settling a debt; he'd had a fairly easy-going life up until now. He enjoyed his job, he had plenty of...well, he wouldn't call them friends, but he knew plenty of people who would happily give him a free meal without him even having to drop hints, and that was more than close enough to friendship for his liking.
Clearly, his happiness had pissed one of the gods off, and they had sent eight ninjas and a bucket of bad luck his way.
But now, it seemed that he was being shown a little bit of mercy – he and Robin had managed to design and build a ninja-trap faster than the Demon could work out who was most willing to pay for information relating to their whereabouts, and they'd just been adding the finishing touches when they'd heard the ninjas coming.
Ninjas traditionally don't alert their victims that they're coming, but being in a room with only two entrances – one a slithering mat that turned into a door, and the other a heavy trapdoor – had helped. Stu and Robin had leapt into position, the ninjas had entered, but before the second one could get through the door, Stu and Robin had escaped through the trapdoor, a restrained ninja in their hot little hands.
Once they were on the other side of the trapdoor, it had been a simple arrangement to bolt it down, and run for their lives. It would take the ninjas at least an hour to work out exactly where the trapdoor came out (or break through from their side) and by that point, Stu and Robin would be long gone.
They had taken a mainly deserted path throughout lower Mauer; a Human and an Angel carrying a struggling sack is not a common sight anywhere, and had they been seen anywhere on the journey, it wouldn't have taken even a child ninja to track them down.
Stu was fairly confident that they hadn't been seen when they arrived at their destination – an abandoned apartment almost half the length of the Wall away. Stu happened to know that it was part of a huge property deal being brokered by one of the few Dwarves that could be found in Mauer. If no one formally lived in these apartments, they could be declared abandoned by the end of the year, and the Dwarf had gone to severe lengths to make sure that no one moved in.
What Stu had to do wouldn't take too long, he hoped, and they should be out of there before the next “inspection” of the apartments ensuring that they continued to be abandoned.
Robin had set the sack containing the struggling ninja down in the middle of the room. There was only one door, and Robin was sitting against it. Stu was wary – the ninja had not killed them yet, but he'd heard rumours that they carried up to 50 concealed weapons on their bodies, and he didn't want to take any risks.
It was a word that Stu wasn't entirely comfortable with, and he couldn't quite bring himself to use it, even in his own mind. He needed to know who was after him, and why, and he needed this ninja to tell him. He needed to do whatever he could to convince the ninja, and if he needed to use...unpleasant methods, then so be it.
It wasn't tor...it wasn't “that word”, Stu reasoned with himself. It was just another component of his job. He got information out of people, it was what he did. He'd never had to resort to any kind of physical violence, or even threats – but then, he'd never needed to get information out of someone quite as desperately as he did at this moment.
Stu sighed, and started to remove the sack. He hoped at the end of the day that himself, Robin, and the ninja would be in a condition that they could walk out of the door. Preferably not all at once, perhaps Robin first, Stu very shortly afterwards, and then the ninja perhaps 5 hours later. A nice confident stride would be best, not the kind of walk where one leg is favoured over the other, as the result of injury. Not dragging himself out on his hands and knees. A nice confident walk.
The sack was entirely removed. The trap inside the storeroom had relied on a few things. It had relied on a ninja entering first – ninjas are primarily recruited from the ranks of Humans and Elves, and it was these measurements that Stu and Robin had been counting on. Had the Demon entered first, the trap may have ruined his suit, but it would have done very little to restrain him or protect the pair inside from the ninjas that would have almost certainly followed him.
It had relied on the ninja being in the traditional “ninja entering a doorway” stance. Had the ninja come in upside-down, or backed into the room, or been inexplicably holding party balloons, then the trap would have put the ninja in the sack, but without his hands being tightly tied.
But most of all, the trap had relied on the ninja to be carrying a weapon. All of these requirements were fairly safe bets – ninjas without weapons were about as common as non-Human or Elven ninjas, which is to say they're not very common at all. And the “ninja entering a doorway” stance is so common among ninjas that some say it's where the stance originally gets its name.
And the ninja had been carrying a weapon, a traditional hatori, which had been knocked out of its hands by a weighted-down sack on the end of a rope. It was this hatori that Stu was holding now, hoping that this ninja wasn't particularly good at disabling enemies and causing them to use the weapon that they're holding on themselves.
The ninja mask doesn't allow for much in the way of facial expressions. “Asleep” and “unconscious” are easily identified, as is “surprise” and “fury.” It was a mix of the last two that Stu saw on the face of the ninja, as it sat perfectly still, in a slightly intimidating manor.
“Uh, hello,” Stu said, immediately regretting his choice of words. Playing the part of the scary potential torturer isn't easy, if one does not traditionally scare or torture, and “Uh, hello” was probably the worst way of portraying the role.
The ninja didn't say anything, nor did his facial expression change.
“Take off the mask,” Stu stammered, wondering if this was a good idea.
Up until extremely recently, Stu hadn't had a lot of contact with ninjas. He'd seen two or three in his life, skulking around town, their presence almost inevitably followed by a good piece of murder gossip to share the next day, but he'd not much experience actually dealing with them person-to-person.
It was entirely possible that underneath a ninja mask, they had...well, Stu's mind almost buckled at the possibilities. Nostrils that shot flame, hidden shurikens in their mouth, a self-destruct spell, a dragon in each ear, hair that turned whoever saw it into stone. Maybe they just had really bad skin, anything could have lay under that mask.
The ninja gestured to his hand-restraints, with a look that despite being conveyed only via the eyes, clearly said “You're an idiot.”
“Robin,” Stu said, “remove our guest's mask.”
Robin stood up, cautiously walked towards the ninja, and reached down for the mask. Stu tried to surreptitiously rearrange himself so that Robin was between him and the ninja's face, then felt a little guilty about his instinctive self-preservation. He tried to cover it up, by moving towards the door, in a way that he hoped would signify that he was only trying to cover the entrance, but realised it just looked like he was trying to make a run for it.
Stu gave up, and settled with just staying still, his stolen hatori still drawn.
“Ouch,” Robin exclaimed. Even when making a pained exclamation, Robin managed to remain somewhat dignified. Stu's “ouch” would have seemed involuntary, or at the very least a little whiney, but Robin managed to convey the fact that this pain he felt was slightly inconveniencing him, and while he wasn't happy about it, he wasn't going to make a fuss.
Robin stepped backwards, his hand bleeding slightly where the ninja had bit it. “Oh no! Robin's going to turn into a ninja!” Stu thought, before realising that no, he was thinking of vampires.
Once Robin and his large wings were out of the way, Stu could clearly see the face of the ninja that they'd captured. Stu had made some fairly basic assumptions about the ninja; he'd assumed that it was a male, for one. He'd assumed that he wouldn't know who the ninja was, underneath the mask. He'd assumed that it wouldn't be the Voice of Norbi, the most powerful man on the planet.
While he was correct on the last assumption, the first two were way off. The ninja was a girl.
The ninja was a girl that Stu knew.
Stu would not have announced himself to be an expert on ninjas. Truth be told, Stu wouldn't have announced himself to be an expert on anything – he knew a little about everything, but everything about nothing. He was the smooth jam of knowledge, spread thinly over everything, with no lumps in any one area.
He couldn't have told you, for instance, that ninja is an extremely tricky field to get into. He couldn't have told you that there were at least 200 different clans of ninja in Earlgate alone, and that they had varying degrees of difficulty to join. One clan, the Ninjas of Faldort, have one simple rule for gaining entry – to become a Ninja of Faldort, you have to kill a Ninja of Faldort. For over 240 years now, they have been a clan of exactly 103 ninjas. Occasionally, a Faldortian Ninja dies of old age, and threatens to screw up the whole system, but the head of the Clan generally leaks the information of the ninja's death, and allows the first person to claim to have killed them to join.
The ninja that Stu and Robin had stuffed into a sack was not a Faldortian Ninja. The clan she belonged to, Ninjas of the Wall, had a much simpler initiation test. To join, one must scale the outside of the Wall – once during the day, and once during the night. This in itself is relatively difficult – occasionally a hopeful entrepreneur will start a “Climb the Wall” business, and three or four deaths later, leave town in an attempt to escape angry widows. The real challenge is that to become a Ninja of the Wall, you have to do it with your feet tied together.
This initiation results in members of the Clan having extremely strong arms, and more often than not, being born and raised on the Wall.
Stu, being completely unaware of the initiation technique of the Ninjas of the Wall, or even the fact that the ninjas chasing him were members of this clan, had used ordinary-strength rope to tie his would-be murderer's arms behind her back.
Shock had also made him completely unaware that when the Ninja's face had been revealed, he had lowered the hatori that he was carrying, out of sheer surprise.
“Hazel?” he gaped, “Hazel Limbo?”
Stu, born and raised on the Wall, had known most of the other long-term residents all his life. The Limbo family was one of the largest long-term families on the Wall; Mrs Limbo, owner of Mrs Limbo's Tower Restaurant, was the aunt of Hazel Limbo, a girl with whom Stu had played any number of childhood games. They hadn't been close, she was just another of the Limbo pack, but he would have recognised her anywhere.
She had left the Wall five or ten years ago, and Stu hadn't heard much about her since. Truth be told, he hadn't asked after her; no one had been interested, and Stu didn't see much point in seeking information when it wasn't going to be useful for later trading.
Still, a ninja! Stu was impressed. He was also slightly worried. While these thoughts had been passing through his head, Hazel had snapped her constraints, wrestled her hatori back from him, and was holding it to his throat.
Fantasy city by David Revoy, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.