Discorsi: The Other Strategy Guide Edit
Part 5: Freedom for the Inner City (Inner City and The Claw) Edit
Continued from Part 4 -- The Persian Occupation
The demise of the Persian galley was an unforgettable sight to behold. I was talking to Luca at the quay, at the steps to the Old Cathedral. He was pointing at the huge galley, the Claw, which carried the Persian occupation forces.
“I was expecting a shipment of merchandise today, but with the galley blocking all access, I am sold out. In a few days, I’ll be broke.”
“What about the resistance?”
“Crumbling. With food supplies running out, and with the sick not having access to medicine, people are more willing to give in to the occupation forces, much more than resist them. Especially since some people who have shown acts of open disobedience were brought aboard the Claw and were never seen again. Last night, Drago brought some smuggled medicine, but it is too little, too late.”
He sighed. “It is maybe a matter of days, at most. I think the Persians would already have had the information if they knew what they were looking for.”
“Did they tell you?” – I knew, obviously, but I would not give her away.
“Yes, they want cooperation. Information about a foreigner. No detail beyond that.” A humorless laugh, “a foreigner. Half the people here are foreigners. They pulled a few men aboard for interrogation. One actually came back. He plunged form the deck and swam to the quay. When he was rescued, he was half dead. His wife is taking care of him – they live in a house near the Net guildhouse. He is still too weak to give a coherent account, but he talked about some revolt aboard the ship. Hardly credible with Hector in charge.”
Luca paused, and just at this moment, I heard something that might have been a scream. Then a clearer, female voice shouting, it sounded like a drawn-out “no”. Then silence. Luca seemed to have heard it, too, for he turned toward the ship. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two guards approaching. During the occupation, they had clear orders to stand down, but they were not forbidden from moving within the city.
Now something was really happening over there. It looked like a thunderstorm on the main deck, a brief flash of light followed by a thunderous boom. Pause. Flash-boom. Pause. And again. Again.
Yes, something was really, really happening. For the first time, I noticed that there were no guards on any of the decks. In fact, there was nobody to be seen on the ship, as if it was a ghost ship. Flash-boom. And still nobody stirred aboard the ship. Flash-boom. This one sounded worse, as if something broke – it was followed by a terrifying ripping sound of wood giving way under enormous stresses. Flash-boom. The massive warship shuddered.
A tremor went through the giant ship, and it began to list all of a sudden. With the ear-splitting sound of tearing and splintering supports, the entire upper deck bent inward and suddenly collapsed at the bow end. Its stern reared up and rose out of the water, while the bow sank. Then the entire superstructure collapsed, engulfing the ship in a huge cloud of dust.
It was over in mere seconds. Bow first, the ship went underwater. A huge wave crashed against the quay, drenching us with spray. Then the waters met above the sinking ship, and the clashing waves crested almost as high as the Cathedral. After that, an eerie silence and a canal full of flotsam. And something stirred. What appeared to be a head rose above the surface – alive? Somebody started swimming toward the shore. I was just staring, dumbfounded by the sheer suddenness of the ship’s demise. Only the guards appeared to have kept their presence of mind. One I recognized as the head of the guards, Black, presently said,
“Oh, and Constable?”
“Help that lady out of the water.”
Lady? The Constable stepped down to the Gondola’s landing and bent over. He then pulled out of the water, I could hardly believe my eyes, Scarlett.
“Are you okay, miss?”
“Yes, I ... think so.”
The guard said something else, of which I could only hear “… I believe it’s yours”, and pointed down at the canal. Scarlett took some steps down and retrieved what looked like a small box. She still looked pretty dazed and, almost sleepwalking, moved in the direction of the Net of the Mask guildhouse. She did not notice me. Perhaps all she needed was some rest and maybe medical help, so I decided to catch up with her later.
The mood in the Inner City was lifted almost immediately. Without new orders, the few remaining Persian guards were in disarray, and a group of them assembled in front of the Persian trade house, but eventually moved on to the Arsenal gate – most likely to find somebody of authority, perhaps even at the Doge’s palace. As if to confirm my thoughts, Ulrik arrived and said,
“The Persians fled to the Palace. They had to open the gate for this purpose, but never closed it again. I’d say the occupation is over.”
Jubilant people tore down the makeshift barricades, some with hammers and some with axes that looked suspiciously like Persian battle axes. Some laggard Persian mercenaries were chased out of the city by an angry mob. It did not take long, and the people were able to walk the streets of the Inner City unimpeded.
I went up the stairs, curious as to whether Scarlett managed to get into the Old Cathedral, and I was filled with joy when I found the door unobstructed. The interior was still a sorry sight with the collapsed floor and the ruined domes, but the damage could be repaired in time. Even better, I found no signs of the Lectors. Scarlett definitely deserved the reward I promised her. The only intriguing find were five skeletons that looked as if they had been hacked to pieces after they died – terrifying, actually.
* * *
I spent some time running some errands and briefly returned to my apartment in the Outer City. I let some time pass, hoping that Scarlett might recover from whatever she encountered, but eventually went to the Net of the Mask Guildhouse. I found Aeris with a mildly disturbed look on her face, pointing at the hall where we held the captured Necromancer . I went there and found, to my utter astonishment, Scarlett sleeping side by side with our captive. Well, this was a disturbing sight. One of the literates walked up and dryly commented, “hm, I don’t know” – yes, brother, nor do I. However, apparently we woke Scarlett. She sat up and looked at us, eyebrows raised, as if to ask, what’s wrong? Maybe it dawned on her, because she said,
“Oh… no, this is not what you might think. This one here” – she pointed at the captive – “has a very strong Twilight aura, and resting on this bed recovers my ability to return from the Twilight World. I needed it, because this time it was almost over for me. Hector, of course. He is no more.”
“What? The Claw – that was you?”
“You did not find Sophistos.” A statement, not a question. Scarlett knew more than I expected.
“No, I did not find him. Do you know where he is?”
“Dead. Captured, tortured, and then killed by Hector.”
“What… Why? Is it about that book again?”
“Correct. Hector knew that Sophistos hid the book, and he tried to get him to talk. Sophistos gave his life to keep the secret. I was there when Hector realized that Sophistos would never talk and killed him. Murdered him in cold blood.”
These were terrible news. Sophistos, an old friend, and wise to live up to his name, dead. Murdered by a lowlife who came to power through corruption and acts of brutality. The exact opposite of Sophistos, come think of it.
“My warning came too late, then? Hector got you, after all?”
“No, I got your letter in time, and thanks for the warning, by the way. Unfortunately, I had no choice. I was told that Sophistos had been captured and brought aboard the Claw. I tried to rescue him, despite your warnings. So it is rather the opposite – I got Hector. But it was a close call.”
“Was I at least correct with my assumption that he had powers similar to the Mistress?”
“Yes and no. The Mistress of the Assassins was mortal, sort of. When I collapsed the scaffold and fought her with the sword, she died. Again, sort of. What I mean is, I was able to inflict injury with my sword. With Hector, it was different. Not a scratch, not with the sword, nor with the Moonblade.”
While Scarlett was telling her tale, our audience had grown. At least half a dozen Net literates had joined us over the last few minutes, and Aeris, too, stepped away from her study corner and now stood next to me and listened with rapt attention. Ioannis, one of the literates, noted, “just as we heard. He gets into a fight, but always comes out without a scratch.”
“Yes, and worse, he had this huge battle axe, and he hit so hard that it lodged in the floor. He had to really pull to dislodge it again. Anything near a hit went to pieces. Then I accidentally smashed this urn of his, he said it contained the ashes of his parents. This made him really furious.”
There was total silence in the audience. They listened to an account that people in Venice would not hear in several lifetimes. It was in some respects a David and Goliath tale, and there was suspense how our David would strike the deadly blow when no hurled stone would harm Hector.
“Now his blows became … supernatural. The ship shook each time he tried to hit me, trying to bludgeon me into the floor. All I could do was dodge and roll – and try to come up with an idea how I could survive. Really, this time it looked as if I was done for”, she looked at me, “as you wrote, I alone would not win against Hector in Battle.”
Ioannis, again: “So why do you still live, then?”
“Hector built up such a fury that he killed himself.” This time, the audience reacted with disbelief. Snorts, shaking of heads, a skeptical harumph. But it was Aeris who had a sudden insight.
“You said they were immortal, that Death could not touch them. But the paradox of dying and being protected from death had to be created with a spell.”
“What are you talking about”, I interjected.
“I’ll explain later. We found some interesting documents. Let her finish, and I’ll tell you about our own former member, Victor. Anyway, what I was saying, he did not cast the protective spell this time. If Scarlett had been able to inflict deadly injury, he’d simply have walked away none the less. But he brought it unto himself, and because he usurped the powers from Death, he inadvertently claimed his own life. Am I right, Scarlett?”
“I suppose so. One time, when I barely dodged his blow, he hit the base of a mast, a thick pillar that supports the superstructure of the ship. It cracked. He didn’t notice it, but I did. So I tried to lure him near the mast supports. He realized too late what he had done. When the entire upper deck collapsed over the throne room, we were pulled underwater, and we both died.”
At this point, she had lost most of the audience. There were scornful remarks: “You died, and that’s why you are here to tell us this” – “So, you are a ghost now?” – “Feeling important today?”, but it was Aeris who restored the order by shouting:
“Be silent and let her talk, or I’ll have your tongues cut out and boiled in scalding water. I think with Hector, Death himself is facing somebody whom he cannot touch. Maybe Death lets Scarlett return?”
“Aeris, you got it right, this is what actually happened. We had to face each other in the realm of the dead, because Hector wouldn’t let me go. It is interesting that their spirit form seems to embody the most evil aspect of their character. The Mistress was a poison snake, literally. Hector was a brutish nightmare demon. You know Dante of Florence, right? His worst demons from Hell do not even get close to the giant demonic spirit form of Hector. He had a weakness, though. His right leg was injured and never healed. He also had something that looked like pegs in his back, maybe another artifact that held him together.
"He was literally towering over me, but when I attacked his weak leg, I could bring him down and focus on the pegs in his back. He would recover and rise up again – dangerous, because he liked to pick me up and smash me into the ground like his battle axe. I tried it several times, and the pegs were gone, eventually. I needed a lot of Health Potion during this fight. After I chipped away the pegs, he could only crawl, and I could attack him head-on. It was still dangerous, because he could still claw at me and snap his teeth, but eventually I wore him down. Only after he was gone was I able to return to the world of the living.”
“How did you get aboard the Claw? In my letter, I warned you that it was a trap – was I right?”
“It was his center for power, but no, he did not set it up as a trap for me. This was different. Before the Claw, I received several jobs. San – you mentioned her – wanted me to get rid of some beasts on the roofs. A citizen needed medicine for his wife. I also cleaned the catacombs from the Gripper infestation. Plus a few other quests during which I inevitably ran into Tusker, who promised to help me sneak on board. This, now, was the real trap. Turns out, Tusker literally sold me to the Persian lieutenant, Casmir. They captured me and brought me to a prison cell on board the Claw. I was able to trick the prison guard and free myself.”
“Really? I take it that you were imprisoned without weapons. So you overwhelmed an armed guard empty-handed?” – a whisper – “Necromancy?”
“Actually, no. Somehow I couldn’t focus enough to cast a spell. I, well, borrowed a bone from a skeleton in my cell. Surprisingly strong bones, that one. The guard never saw it coming, and this was my only advantage. Once I subdued the guard and relieved him of his axe, believe it or not, I fell asleep for a moment. Lucky nobody checked on me. Appears I needed that rest, because after my nap I had the strength to cast spells again.
“I went out into the hallways. They were only lightly guarded. Sloppy of them. Then I found my items in a chest nearby, and glad I did, because there was a room full with Lectors. After that, I moved out onto the deck and started to remove the opposition, one by one, to get closer to Hector. Incidentally, I saw Drago’s Gondola. He asked for my help, and I got some medicine for him from the Claw. In return, he helped me gain entrance to the throne room. This is where I saw Sophistos being murdered.”
“Then the magic book is lost?”
“The Black Grimoire? No, we have to recover it, it is too dangerous. That book needs to be destroyed.”
“How? Didn’t Sophistos take his secret to the grave?”
“Yes, but then, there is Necromancy. And death is not as final as it seems. I think I can find out.”
“Oh? You mean you can talk to the dead?” I had seen a lot of strange things lately, but this was stretching it.
“Well, no, at least not yet. I am getting close, though. There is one element of knowledge and skill missing, and I hope that I can find that knowledge, and soon.”
“So what are your plans now?”
“I think I need to explore the Arsenal District. I should be able to find Sophistos there, or at least what’s left of him. I’ll go there right now, better not to delay. In fact, I have some errands to run, too. I have a parcel for somebody who calls himself The Doctor and a letter for somebody called Liora.”
“Be careful, the Arsenal is Rogue’s territory”, Ioannis warned. “and you should add Largo, the administrator, to your list of unsavory characters. Try to use the gondolas whenever you can. During a gondola ride, you may find time to tend to your wounds or to relax for a few moments. Gondolas are certainly a very healthy way to travel. If you go up the huge stairs, watch your back. That place is crawling with Rogues, day and night.”
“’kay, thanks for the warning. I’ll be careful. And whenever I can, I’ll leave messages with Aeris so we can stay in touch.”
With that, she went out the door. I turned to Aeris: “You mentioned that you had some interesting discoveries? About Victor?”
“Yes. Our Victor.” With an angry gesture, Aeris pointed her hand at the portrait in the entrance hall. “Scarlett searched his home and found his diary.”
“Oh, wait a moment”, I interjected, “does Scarlett frequently enter other people’s homes and pocket their owner’s belongings?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“In my apartment, some items have disappeared. Somebody filched a book with old Venetian songs – one of my least valuable books, fortunately, but in the basement, a chest was emptied out. The lock at the entrance door had been broken, and the chest locks also have been tampered with. I somehow had the impression that Scarlett might have been involved?”
“Perhaps. I heard some rumors from the Inner City, too, but nothing of real substance.”
“If this is true, somebody needs to talk to her. I think she is rather challenged with the idea of personal property. Could become a good employee in a government agency. But her idea of what to do with other people’s property is not highly regarded in Venice. She needs to put a stop to it.”
“If it was her.”
“Yes, of course. I have no proof. But please do continue. You mentioned a diary?”
“Yes, Victor’s Diary. It was in code, and his entries were vague, but he hinted at some ritual to trick Death. He was interested in the dark arts, and as my predecessor he had access to everything in this house. I also think he must have hidden something here, but I will need Scarlett’s skills to find out more. The diary mentions some unknown threat to his plan. I think it actually refers to Scarlett herself, although Victor may not have known.”
“Find out more how?”
“A Hooded Wings Messenger disappeared a few days ago, and I believe he was carrying a message for Sophistos. We need that message and see who wrote it and what.”
“And Scarlett holds the key to finding that messenger, I take it?”
“Yes. Well, no. Not yet. She needs to acquire more necromantic skills, as she mentioned. She needs to explore the Arsenal first. She knows what to look for – and once she found it, I’ll ask her to search for that messenger. I think she’ll do it.”
“So you suspect that the Doge is more of a figurehead, and the real mastermind behind all this is Victor?”
“The Doge is a politician. A rather simple-minded one, too, if I may say so. Look at the sophistication of the ritual for making people undead, if this is what we call it. We know it for a fact about the Mistress and about Hector. I’d bet the Doge is also part of this illustrious circle, but he’d never be able to come up with such a dangerous and intricate ritual. No, I think Victor fits the bill. And who knows who else is inside his cabal of undead. Scarlett needs to be careful lest she runs into one of them unawares.”
“What? No, he vanished without a trace a long time ago.”
“I did business with him before you took over the Net. Amago actually helped me develop my business. He was absolutely obsessed with immortality, and he was paying me well to bring him books and scrolls about any unusual ritual. Maybe he found something, and he is really the mastermind you stipulated.”
“You may be right. Still, I have a feeling that it is Victor. In any case, we have to try and find that message.”
“Very well. I have some business to attend to. There is a ship waiting in the Harbor that brought back some ancient writings that I want to examine. Then I need to repair my market booth. If something develops, send Rico.”
I left the guild hall, but paid a brief visit to the Persian tradehouse and purchased a real sword from Turek. (interesting that this bright trading hall would be the sinister place where Scarlett was abducted.) The blunt old Rogue blade I tossed into the canal.
* * *
I used the gondola to get to the harbor, which allowed me to bypass the Arsenal district. Ioannis’ warning to Scarlett was justified – the Arsenal district was a death trap at night, and merely dangerous in broad daylight, and I had no desire to pay some “protection” money. Especially if it bought me no protection whatsoever. My visit at the Charming Princess was quick and uneventful. I took possession of a crate of documents and started to carry it to the nearest gondola station.
While I was lugging the crate, I started to reconsider my plans. Rather than reopening my booth at the marketplace, I’d bring the crate to my house and sift through the documents first. The memory of getting imprisoned was still fresh in my mind, and I had no desire to attract more trouble. I was somewhat distracted by my thoughts when…
“What have you done to me? What have I become?”
What the hell? I turned around and saw Scarlett running at me, then starting to hit me with her fists. I tried to catch her wrists to stop her from hammering at me, but she had grown strong, and she tore her arms free again.
“Scarlett. What’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”
“What have I become? I am a killing machine. I don’t know any more what happened to me.”
“Scarlett – talk to me. What happened?”
She was crying now and sat down on my crate. I gave her some time to compose herself, then tried again,
“Do you want to talk?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I don’t think I know who I am any more.”
“So what happened?”
“I ran into Tusker. Right here on this ship.” – she pointed at the somewhat conspicuous pirate galley – “promised revenge for his treachery and challenged him to a duel.”
“And how did you get out of this alive?”
“That’s my point!”, she shouted at me. “He didn’t even put up a real fight. Gave up after a few sword clashes. And I was told he was a fierce fighter.”
I still did not see where this was leading, so I said, “well, I guess you have grown stronger.”
“I guess. Remember back in San Pasquale, when I was almost paralyzed with fear of these Assassins? Took them on one by one, and got some pretty bad cuts from them?”
She paused, reflecting. “Earlier, I was trying to free a landlady who was held for ransom in the catacombs. It was a bunch of renegade Assassins, maybe six or seven. They treated her badly. She was barely able to speak, they must have punched her in her mouth. I was so in rage that I attacked the Assassins and killed them. Every one of them. And it was not even a match. I dove in and out of the Passage, hitting them when they did not expect it, and killed… killed six Assassins without even getting so much as a scratch from them. And Sara – the landlady – she was already free and gone.”
“What are you saying? That it was not necessary to kill them? They mistreated their hostage, right? So of course you’d try to avenge her.”
“Yes. But killing them all? Attacking Tusker? Chasing all those Rogues? Going back on deck on the Claw after I delivered the medicine to Drago just to kill those Persians? Killing Casmir just because I didn’t like his nose? I think I have lost my way.”
“What can I do do help you?”
She had quieted down somewhat by now. “Just listening is good already.”
“So far, it seems to me that you acted in self-defense or in defense of others.” – the wrong thing to say, because she started to shout at me again,
“No, it was not! Tusker? Casmir? The Assassins? It wasn’t really necessary. I acted out of revenge.”
“Yes, maybe you did. Tell me, did Casimir deceive you? And Tusker? Did the Assassins’ Guild kill Benedict? Don’t you think that revenge is understandable?”
“Understandable, maybe, but does this justify it?”
I tried a different tack. “Think about Benedict. What would he want? Would he want you to avenge him? Or would he prefer that you let go of your anger?”
“Benedict… No, he would not approve of my actions. He’d never say anything, but you’d see it in his face. Pursue my goal, yes, but not with anger and revenge in my heart.”
Your goal? What do you have to do to achieve your goal?”
“The Undead Archon. The Grimoire. I have to find Sophistos and make sure he destroyed the Black Grimoire. Maybe I have to confront the Undead Archon.”
“And why do you believe that you have to confront this Undead Archon? You would avenge Benedict, because the Undead Archon is ultimately responsible for his death, isn’t that right?”
“No. Yes. Maybe. Revenge is one thing. But I think I have to do it, because I have the power. If not me, then who? I need to do this to restore the balance.”
“Scarlett, you should consider what you already did for the people of Venice. You smoked out the Assassin’s nest and lifted the oppressive fear they spread in the Outer City. You defeated Hector and restored freedom to the Inner City. Who knows, maybe you will play a key role in making the Arsenal district safe again? Even if you sometimes have feelings of anger and revenge, this does not take away from the good you did.” I decided not to bring up the missing items and mangled locks in my house, it would probably complicate the issue at this point.
“I need to restore the balance,” she repeated, almost mantra-like. “I will try to consider my actions and not be motivated by revenge.”
“Yes, good. But also be aware how your strength has grown, and how much more skilled you are.” At the far end of the quay, I glimpsed a group of four exotic-looking men, dressed in some gold armor. They were dragging a huge beast by its chains, possibly moving into one of the warehouses. It made me wonder if they were working for the Doge, too, and if Scarlett would have to face them, eventually. I pointed them out to her:
“And you may need your strength. Look over there. Who knows what these types have in mind. They look fierce.”
“I know. I made their acquaintance already. I had a number of these waiting for me on the stairs in the Arsenal. They are vicious with the spear, but worse, they attack in numbers. On my way down, I ran into a group of Rogues, while I was chased by those warriors. Fortunately, they started to attack each other, which allowed me to escape by sliding down a rope. I think I got lucky that time. They were just too many.”
Scarlett stood up from the crate on which she had been sitting. “Thanks. Thanks for listening. Oh, do you need help carrying this thing?”
“No, I can manage. A Gondolier will help me.”
She did help me get the crate to the next gondola station, but then Scarlett walked over to the dockyards, while I returned home. I have to admit, though, that these gold-clad warriors worried me. What had Scarlett gotten herself into this time?