Interlude Two – Cassius

Please note that part two has not yet been fully revised. Some continuity errors may occur.


The great city of Al Mendor was like a beast lying dormant in the warmth of summer; life pulsing through its streets at a slovenly, yet regular pace that might keep the heart beating, but would not stray into the promiscuous rhythm of industry. Above, the eyes of Ranneh stood at their noon zenith, claiming the sky for their own in all their glory as the Oathlord looked down upon the children of Elhané.

There was judgement in that gaze, a parental weight of expectation and a certainty that those blessed by the light would surely disappoint – if not now, then someday. That was how it looked to Cassius Spane, as he made his way through the throngs that muddled along, bumping into one another and, more disturbingly, bumped into him on more than one occasion.

He had already protected his money pouch once by catching a thief by the hand and breaking it with a swift twist. He had little patience for the quirks of city life, and most especially not for the criminal society that grew in the shadow like a nasty wart in an uncomfortable spot.

Cassius was a very powerful man out on a precarious mission, one that was vitally important to his master and the house he served. His working titles were purposefully humble, enough that most would dismiss him as nothing but a head-servant, or perhaps the administrator of estate.

The truth, though, was that Cassius Spane had stood at the right hand to the master of House Mingdale since its inception some odd 300 years earlier, and personally tutored two generations of young masters from childhood into family heads. Currently, beside his other tasks, he was also in charge of the latest rebellious offshoot of the Mingdale family, a task more daunting than his experience should suggest.

That girl will make me fall into an early grave, Cassius thought with fondness, smiling to himself as the weight of his responsibilities made him think of the young mistress that was his current charge. Tuition was, however fulfilling, not the main purpose with which he suffered the muddy streets and unwashed masses on this day. His duty was to his master, and the discomfort of city-life would not distract him from the straight and narrow path.

As the masses churned and twisted around him – sharp tenors of the mercantile street vendors underlining the din of conversation and chatter – Cassius stepped into a deep shadow that made him look upwards at the crooked building that rose at an angle from the central plateau.

Tilting precariously over the eastern city, the structure had stood like that for more than five thousand years; a last monument to the Old Ones, one of the few they had left behind when they disappeared almost from one day to the next. The Fallen Tower, it was called, and it was a marvel of engineering that no elvenhan nation had yet managed to reproduce.

The face of the structure looked to be carved out a single piece of rock, but it surface was smooth enough to be mistaken for metal. Arching windows and great balconies snaked around the structure, many of them unusable since the tower had fallen from the sky and ended up tilted at a 45 degree angle.

He forced his eyes away from the marvel above, and focused on the immediate task – the one he was closing in on like a viper ready to snap down on its prey. Out of the shadows, Cassius took a left turn down a narrow alley, and came out in the craftsmen’s quarter, where the rhythmic beat of a hammer indicated that, at least here, some industry was still continuing despite the suppressing heat.

Passing the signs of tailors, blacksmiths, leatherworkers, and much, much more, Cassius finally arrived before an unassuming sign showing the watered-out image of a hammer striking a screw – the sure sign of someone with a bad humor, or a less-than-full understanding of these tools’ function. The shop bore no name, but a sign next to the entrance proclaimed its function to be: ‘GOLEM MORTUARY’ – another bad joke.

Cassius ignored the obvious signs of incompetence and entered the dimly lit shop, finding a table dressed in strange knick-knacks and a bored amalgamated male attendant behind the counter, studying something that looked suspiciously like a geometric puzzle. It was always a chore to identify the particular strain of the amalgamated city dwellers, whose heritage was so diluted and mixed that they might as well belong to all bloodlines as well as none.

Cassius manged to spot a distinctive set of harpy-wings protruding from the attendant’s back. The elongated head, and the meager frame was another hint, despite the rough, satyr-esque pelt that followed his neckline down into the shirt, or the feline canines that protruded slightly from between the thick and scaled lips. All in all, the man was a mess.

Cassius turned to a brass mirror at the wall and took a quick note of himself, just to be sure that everything was in order. No one would mistake him for a trueblood elf; his face was thin, his complexion pale, with eyes so narrow and tilted that he appeared to be constantly smiling if not for the stern set of his mouth.

His ears had the distinct fullness of one closely related to the trueborn, but the sharp nails of his hand and the red tint of his irises – which were visible only when he wanted them to – revealed his connection to the dreaded vampir. With a sharp tug at his collar, Cassius righted his immaculate attire of a dark brocaded coat over his white shirt, and turned his attention back on the attendant.

The harpy amalgam finally noted the customer and sat up straight, losing his earlier obsession on the ground behind the desk, and said, “W-welcome sir! How may I be of assistance?” Ignoring the poor manners, Cassius stepped forward with purpose, close enough that he loomed above the harpy despite the desk that separated them.

“I have come to meet with master Baek,” he said, succinctly and to the point, letting the ensuing silence draw out the attendant’s uncertainty. “Master Baek, sir? He is busy at the forge, I’m afraid. Have you made any arrangements?”

“I have not, but I believe Master Baek is expecting me.”

“Expecting you?” Repeated the harpy with unhelpful hesitation, “I’m sure he would have told me if we were expecting you, sir. I am sorry, but without an appointment I have to ask you to…” The attendant trailed off as Cassius reached into his inner pocket and drew out a rounded, flat package wrapped in a golden-threaded, dark-green handkerchief.

With an elegant flick of his wrist, Cassius flipped one corner of the silky material over,before he carefully removed another with his well-kempt fingers, revealing the round object within. For a moment the attendant looked on with a stunned expression, recognizing the glowing item for what it was. Then he shook himself and straightened, before bowing slightly and gesturing towards the doorway beside the counter and saying, “I’m terribly sorry, sir. Indeed, master Baek has been expecting you for some time. Please, come this way.”

Cassius nodded with satisfaction at the shift in tone, then flicked the handkerchief back into position, hiding away the object and storing it once more in his inner pockets where it would be safe. As the attendant opened the door and held it, Cassius strode forward, entering into a backroom with a stairway going up to the second store as well as down to the basement.

“This way, sir.”

Cassius fell into step behind the amalgamated harpy, following him to the stairs and down the steps into a narrow corridor with several doors to either side, lit up by stable coral lamps. Plaques on the doorframes told of what was behind the doors, one in particular said, “useless”, while another was, “a mess”, and the last Cassius took note of was, “fool’s gold.”

“Not very informative,” said Cassius, nodding towards the plaques when the attendant looked over his shoulder with a questioning glance. “What? Oh, yes quite. Master Baek has his own system that he keeps in strict order; you’ll have to ask him for an explanation, if you’d like one, sir.”

Cassius waved it off as inconsequential. He had more important matters than the whims of a craftsman. They passed a final door, which Cassius did not bother to read the plaque of, and came to the door at the end of the corridor, which was markedly different than the others. While the others were simple wood, this one was solid metal – iron, Cassius guessed – and covered in gears and levers in an intricate pattern that made it impossible to follow the logic of the construction from beginning to end.

The Harpy turned and said, “I’m sorry sir, but I must insist that you turn around for this part. Master Baek is very sensitive about this room and its content.”

Though he was interested, Cassius did not argue the point. He turned around dutifully, looking down at the corridor they had just come through and listening to the tapping and ticking that began to sound behind him. After a short while, the attendant said, “You can turn back now, sir,” and Cassius turned to observe the marvelous machinery unlocking in front of him.

The middlemost gear in the door was also the largest, spanning nearly the width of the door in its diameter, and it appeared to also be the most important part of the puzzle, as its ticks clearly regulated the movement of all the other parts. Smaller gears spun rapidly, while sliders and levers ticked from one side to the other, shifting places and beginning the rotations of new parts; interfering and shifting the whole mosaic of logic and precision into a beautiful landscape of exactness.

The whole ordeal was hypnotizing, and Cassius was spellbound from his first look, right up and until the final shift that made the whole system come to a magnificent halt. A slight crack appeared, then grew as the door parted four ways and slid into the walls, ceiling and floor respectively, opening into a larger chamber behind where a soft light welcomed Cassius into a new world.

Impressed, although he made sure not to show it, Cassius stepped forward and into the chamber, only to be immediately shocked by what he saw. Lined at either side of the chamber stood great shapes that at a cursory glance might be confused with trueblood elves or some of the other highborn, but at a second inspection one recognized the signs of lifeweave, the indications of mechanical joints, and the lifeless expressions that were standard to the deactivated units.

These were the marvels of the age, the revitalization of lost ingenuity, the legacy that had once bound the elf-born to subservience, now re-purposed to serve them. These were the indications of a master smith, no less than a warsmith, these were constructs one and all. The ability to build one of these would make you wealthy, having six constructs standing to collect dust in the cellar of a rund-down smithy was simply superfluous extravagance.

“By the Old Ones,” Cassius breathed, turning about on the spot, trying to take in all of the machines at once. Finding the task impossible, he stepped towards one and took a closer look. Reaching into his pocket, Cassius retrieved his round spectacles and put them on.

The one he inspected was a head taller than himself, with clearly defined artificial muscles, broad shoulders, and a jawline so sharp that it could cut through rocks. Lines of blue marked the pathways of lifeforce that would allow the construct to move once bound to a mage, while – at the position of the heart – a gem the size of a fist was lodged deep into the chest cavity and protected behind transparent glass reinforced with lifeforce scrollwork. Still unbound, and clearly inert, the construct looked strangely menacing, its lifeless eyes reflecting the soft light of the room in sinister gleams.

Cassius had fought a construct once, in the company of his first master – Sei of Mingdale – back in the Red Water Wars between the Kingdom of Ammedina and the Empire Legastor to the south. The smell of sulfur had infected the air that day, after 10 days of struggle by the Heldon river where the Kingdom had made its stand. Artillery shells split the landscape apart, leaving behind mangled bodies and treacherous pits that could cost a broken leg for the careless.

In addition, when the river overflowed from the summer thaw, the whole area became a flooded mudpit and cesspool of taint and disease. With imperial forces overrunning all their forward positions, Cassius had followed his master in a desperate stand up a forested hillside where it was still possible to get a footing, and against which the enemy first had to content with the bending river before entering firing range. For hours they had stood their ground at that rotting hillside, along with the forces under their command and the dispirite allies that had rallied at their position, leaving scores of enemies to fall into the red-running waters of the Heldon.

Finally, realizing that it would otherwise take a massive force to overtake their fortified position, the empire sent in their newly developed trump card: a battlemage joined with a construct.

Cassius still remembered the tight twist of his chest, the cold sweat running down his spine, and the cramp of his toes as they curled in on themselves, the moment he saw the two figures appear by the riverside. One riding a tartaga warbeast, while the other stomped through the mud with mechanical precision.

What followed was one of the most grotesque battles that Cassius had ever fought; one side with clear superiority of number, while the other had supreme destructive power. The fight only lasted for an hour, but by that time they had lost more than three-fourths of their numbers, the hillside had been leveled completely, and the bend of the Heldon had been forever altered.

Cassius breathed out heavily, his chest catching in a staccato, and his usually steady hands began shaking ever so slightly. Being this close to one of the famed war machines, however inert, always brought him back to that day.

With hesitation, he reached out and traced the blue lines down the arm of the construct, feeling the sizzle of his own lifeforce interacting with the material as it siphoned a slight trace away even though he was not joined to the machine.

“Is pretty, ain’t it?” said a light voice behind him, which made Cassius start and turn on his heels, arms up in a fighting posture. There was, however, no enemy, just a small female figure standing beside the construct on the other side of the room. She was slight of build and no taller than Cassius’ hip, dressed in a dirty overall that might have once been blue, but were now stained by several indistinguishable spots of dark and gray.

It was her large eyes, large as teacups, in the otherwise small head that identified her as a gnome, while the way she had tied up her bright pink hair into huge puffballs atop her head exemplified the typically strange fashion sense of the gnomes. Cassius’ sudden reaction had startled her as well, and she stepped backwards, stumbled over the foot of the construct beside her, falling back on her behind with a soft squeal. She had been holding a way-too-big monkey wrench in her hands, which clanged dangerously on the floor tiles as she dropped it.

“I-I’m terribly sorry,” said Cassius, quite uncertain what to make of the little creature that was now scrambling to get back on her feet and retrieve her unwieldy equipment. She finally managed to get everything under control and then, with eyes wide open, said, “No, no, it was my fault for startling you! I sometimes lose myself when looking at them too, so I should have known!”

She followed this up with a deep bow that made her lose the monkey wrench again. This time it hit the ground and bounced back up, hitting her in the forehead. She did not fall back down again, but just held her head with her hands while her eyes were closed tight in the cutest grimace of pain that Cassius had ever witnessed.

“I take no offense, mistress gnome, please be at ease. The gallery was indeed so stunning that I lost myself.”

“Rea-,” she managed to bite her tongue, which moved her hands from the sides of her head down in front of her mouth – as if she could staunch the pain by holding onto it – and had to do a double take, “reawwie?”

“Yes, really. I have never seen this many constructs in one place, and none of such quality. This must have taken you master a lot of time and incredible care.” She smiled at the praise, beaming beatifically with newfound confidence.

“Oh indeed! Master Baek is the best there is, sir! He says he’s not that good, but I’ve seen what them warsmiths in the upper quarters produce, and it’s nothing next to these!”

“You don’t say..” Cassius smiled at her enthusiasm and fervor for her master. It had not been easy to sniff out the secret of this hidden warsmith, in fact it was only now that Cassius looked at these wondrous machines that he had hard proof that their suspicions were correct. The house of Mingdale had reached deep into their near-inexhaustible coffers to get the information, and still it had barely risen above hearsay.

Pottom Baek was an enigma in the circle of construct smiths. Ostensibly his enterprise merely consisted scavenging and recycling old parts from minor constructs, those that needed no mage bond to function, and yet he consistently acquired materials – under a different name, and never twice from the same supplier – that no scrap shop would need, or be able to afford.

The ways in which these materials were transported and shipped were usually less than above-board, and thus it had been fairly easy to bribe the last supplier to add a small sample, along with a terse letter that said, We will be by soon to discuss the details.

Pottom Baek was smart enough to understand the implication, and had apparently instructed his shop attendant to lead the one who could produce a similar sample here – clearly a show of strength. Either he wanted to intimidate Cassius, for having the audacity to unmask him, or he wanted to impress. Perhaps it was a little of both; either would be favorable to Cassius’ purpose.

While Cassius had contemplated the myriad complexities involved in his current task, the little gnome had been droning on and on about her master’s magnificence, going so far as to erupt into a little dance where she partnered up with her monkey wrench in an impressive waltz – in which Cassius got the distinct impression that the wrench was the one leading.

“…and this one time – oh you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself, mister – this one time, master Baek took the pieces of a Royal Juggernaut and split it apart, then reworked the entire thing from scratch and increased its efficiency by 32%!”

Cassius’ blank stare must have tipped her off, since she stopped the dance and said, “Don’t you see, mister? With that kind of efficiency, a minor adept could work the most advanced constructs in the kingdom!” That did take Cassius aback. The Royal Juggernauts were all that kept the Empire from expanding further into Ammedina, and master Baek could make these work for minor adepts?

Chaos, Cassius thought as he contemplated the idea, Absolute and utter chaos.

“Are ya telling these fancies off again, Izzy? Ya should know better than to speak so in front of guest!” This time Cassius was prepared for the intrusion, having heard the clomping of the newest arrival far in advance. With elegance, the old vampir turned towards the chamber doorway, where perhaps the ugliest dwarf he had ever seen made his entrance.

While a bit taller than the gnome, reaching Cassius’ stomach, the stout creature was so hunched over that he might have been considered tall for a dwarf if he could straighten up. His dwarfish mane was black as soot, hair in disarray and clumped together by either oil or a fat grease, while his beard was barely followed the dwarven customs of braiding, to the point that Cassius suspected that he was wearing a braid done at least two weeks ago.

Though his appearance was haggard and rough, his eyes were vividly green and sparkling with a keen intelligence that spoke of someone who knew exactly how easy it was to dismiss him for his looks – and who used it to stark advantage.

“I apologize for the wait, mister….?” Said the dwarf, as he waddled up to Cassius and offered him a hand in greeting, pausing in question. “Cassius Spane,” answered Cassius to the unspoken question, accepting the dwarf’s hand in a firm shake, “Steward of Estates of House Mingdale.”

As their shake held, Cassius noted how rough the dwarf’s hand was. He had seen the hands of smiths before, of course, but never had he seen a hand that looked like the dwarf had poured steaming laver over it, shaved said lava off with a butterknife, and then let the limb soak in mud for a moon before washing it off in acid – just as a finishing touch.

“Ahh, master Spane, of Mingdale ya say? Well I bid you welcome to my meager shop. I am Pottom Baek, humble proprietor, and seller of household constructs” Said the dwarf, grinning as he twisted his hunched-over head in a peculiar manner to look Cassius straight in the eye.

House Mingdale, yes. And I daresay that there is nothing humble about you, master Baek. Nor is there anything meager about your stock,” Cassius riposted, spreading his hands out towards the surrounding constructs, knowing the game was already in its advanced stages and that he was up against a worthy opponent.

“These?” The dwarf huffed and turned his head in that awkward way to look at his own creations, “These are mere imitations; barebone shadows of what has come before. If ya name these more than meager, ya must name the Old Ones and their creations more than divine, and even they had their limits”

Cassius gave his best smile; the one he always used before he killed, “And yet we cannot even fathom what these limits were.. regrettable, is it not?”

The dwarf eyed him again, warily. He knew the line they were dancing on was dangerous territory, it could get them both killed – or worse. They could not say outright what they wanted of one another, that would be either blasphemy or sedition – depending on your point of view – and so they had to work in innuendo and unspoken agreements. To the side, even the gnome appeared to understand the high stakes, as she stood with eyes wide open, wrench up in front of her mouth, keeping absolutely still.

“I suppose… Does not ye’re House Mingdale have a well preserved looking-glass into the workings of the Old Ones? Have ya gleamed anything from your dungeon, something that might shed light on age-old mysteries?”

They were getting closer to the core issue now.

Cassius opened his narrowed eyes slightly, allowing the dwarf to see the blood-red irises that made many elvenhan uncomfortable because of their demonic reminiscence. With careful intonation, Cassius said, “The dungeon has provided clues, yes, however our most recent discovery was made by an expedition into the Heart of the Forest.”

The dwarf did not blink, did not look away, and kept his dirty face perfectly neutral. “I was under the impression that only those of the Elvan strain could enter – ya have one such?”

“No,” said Cassius, his thin lips warping slightly, “The old barrier is gone. The Heart is open to all.”

No blinking. Just a drop of sweat that slowly traversed the plains of dirt and grease that lathered the dwarf’s forehead. “I heard…” The dwarf began, then trailed off and finally had to look away from Cassius’ bloody gaze, “No, it doesn’t matter. Did ya find anyone in there – anyone alive, that is?”

“Not alive, no… but we did find something.”

A sigh, then the dwarf looked back up, twisting once again around his hunch. “Ya win. How much for the samples?”

Cassius opened his mouth slightly in a grin, subtly showing off his sharpened canines, and said, “Samples, my dear smith? Like this one?” He took out the round object from his inner pocket again and carelessly threw it towards the hunchback. Gasping, the gnome lost the wrench – again – as she hopelessly tried to save the object from falling onto the ground.

However, she need not have bothered. With surprising agility, Pottom Baek twisted his body like a snake, catching the object in mid-air, and unfolded the handkerchief with rough movements, staring longingly at the soft glow from beneath.

“This, Master Baek, I will give you for free – and more, if you desire. What I want from you is not to sell, but to buy.”

Confused, the dwarf struggled to take his eyes away from the object in his hands and take up eye-contact once more. “Buy? What could I possibly have in my inventory that House Mingdale could not acquire on its own?”

“It is not items that House Mingdale require, but expertise; a certain expertise that normally can only be acquired with the blessings of the council or the queen herself. We need someone who can not only do research, but also do repairs and maintenance on an extremely complicated project related to the sample in your hands.”

For a moment the dwarf did not – could not – speak. His mouth hung slightly ajar, his eyes widening as he took in the implications and repercussions this conversation might have. Cassius could not fault him that; he himself felt this was approaching madness, but what else could they do?

“Ya have… the whole thing? Preserved, in good condition?”

Cassius nodded, not daring to make affirmations by voice.

“And ya want me to… to… Old ones…”

“Indeed.”

Pottom Baek let his hands, along with the sample, hang down as he began pacing back and forth. Cassius allowed the smith to work it out on his own, meanwhile he held his breath in the hopes of the answer he wanted. One last time the dwarf made a circuit of his immediate surroundings, then turned and looked at the gnome, Izzy.

She had been a bystander for the entire conversation, something that Cassius only realised now might have been a mistake. Could she be trusted to keep her mouth shut – would he have to kill her?

Finally, Pottom turned back to Cassius and said, “I’ll do as you ask, master Spane, but I have conditions.”

Hoping it wasn’t noticeable, Cassius breathed a sigh of relief and answered, “Anything you desire, master Baek, the holdings of House Mingdale are at your disposal.”

The dwarf narrowed his eyes. “Is that so? Well good, ’cause I will need the best damn equipment ya can get ye’re greasy hands on – no offense.”

“Done, and none taken.”

“I will also need a stipend, one that takes into account both the difficulty and risk of the task, mind ya.”

“Also done. I have taken the liberty of drafting an initial proposal for you,” said Cassius and took out a slip of paper that he handed to the dwarf. Pottom accepted it, read it carefully, then widened his eyes substantially.

“This… This’ll do…” The dwarf looked back up, then pointed a thumb at the gnome behind him, “Lastly, I’ll be taking Izzy here with me – that is non-negotiable. She is my assistant, see.”

Cassius took his eyes off the dwarf and took another look at the gnome, studying her closely. Her eyes were still wide open, but now they also held a certain sparkle; an innocent glee that she radiated into her surroundings while she stared reverently at her master. “Also agreed,” said Cassius, nodding back to the dwarf, “We will be honored to have your assistant join us.”

“Great!” Said Pottom, suddenly perking up, eyes shining with dwarven greed, “This calls for a drink! More than one, in fact! Ya will join us, of course, will ye not?”

Between relief and satisfaction of the task he had accomplished, Cassius failed to control his facial features as they contorted into a grimace. He knew he would have to accept the offer to nail down the agreement, and he knew that no one came off lightly in a drinking contest with dwarves.

And there were always drinking contests with dwarves.