The mole king.
Chapter 1 of the fall of Gryphon’s Crown.
Gryphon’s Crown was under siege by the Blight. Although it was as if the world ended a month ago when the dead attacked, Bruna Griffsdottir was used to the moaning now. She heard it the moment she woke up, during the day and when she went to bed in the house she shared with her lover and little sister. They lived in a small house on top of an abandoned high rise building near the eastern edge of the city. During the summer it had a lovely view on the great forest of the elves to the east and in the distance on a clear day you could see as far as Dawnford. But during the winter it was a cold place and much akin like living in a box. The walls did not keep the cold out to well and most of the coin went to buying kindling and measures to try and keep the warmth in. On most winters Bruna and her household could manage but with the Blighters outside work and food dried up quick. As did their coin.
The last of the coin went with Tina to cover her school and food for the day. Bruna swore an oath on her mother’s deathbed that at least one of Hilde Griffsdottir’ daughters would make something of herself.
The dwarven blood on her grandmother’ side must’ve been quite strong despite it being mixed with human parentage because Bruna made sure every day that her sister went to school and had a future.
Bruna put a scarf around Tina’s neck despite the protests.
“I don’t want to wear a scarf!” Tina pouted angrily." It itches!" Tina looked much like a younger version of Bruna. A long haired brunet girl with brown doe eyes, both looking quite pretty but in a common kind of way. Where Bruna looked a bit stockier, due to her dwarven heritage, Tina took more from their father’ side and seemed more lithe. No doubt when Tiny Tina’s growth spurt would begin she would outgrow her bigger sister to in no time.
“I don’t care if it itches.” Bruna scolded her sister with a slight pat on the head before she gave the small bag of coin to her sister." You are to stay warm and do as I and Master Endrick say. Did you finish your homework?“
Tina rolled her eyes.” Yes…"
“Do you have enough for today’s lesson and lunch?”
“What do you do when you get to the ground level?“
A weary sigh.” I follow the path you showed me and stay in the sights of the guard at all times…“
Bruna nodded.” Good. and when school is done?“
Another weary sigh.” I follow the same road back and go straight home…”
“Good.” she kissed her little sister on the forehead." Now off you go.“
Tina placed the money bag inside her stitched blue coat and buttoned up.” But I want to work today. Look!" She pointed to her own hands." Small fingers, I can steal purses from pockets and everything.“
Bruna shook her head.” We don’t steal, Tiny Tina. Now go, i’ll see you here after school.“
Tina held the coin bag inside her coat. She looked up at her big sister, a sad look in her eyes.” This is the last of the money isn’t it?"
Bruna only replied with a sad smile and pushed her sister out the door into the white blanket of snow outside.
She could see her own breath as she waved her sister off. It was a cold day that day for certain. She heard Frina’s coughs before she saw her half-elven lover come down the stairs. Those coughs said enough, Bruna would be the only one strong enough to work that day.
“Did I just miss Tina?” Frina asked.
Bruna nodded with a smile at her lover and guided her to the breakfast table where their meagre meal awaited, some porridge with honey stolen from a merchant three days ago and a lukewarm cup of tea. Frina had always been delicate, that came with being an half-elf, but her beauty and smile always earned her coin in the theatre.
“You’ll stay in today, sweetling.” Bruna kissed her on the forehead.
“I have to go today, dear…” Frina coughed." The Globe is looking for a new actress for the part of Dawn. I studied all night to get all the lines right."
“Sweetling if you go now all they’ll see is a sick woman who coughs every five minutes.” Bruna ate some of her porridge." What about the small theatre? People loved you in that Ophra Elswin play.“
Frina took a bite from her breakfast.” Not many people go to that one anymore…it’s either the Globe or nothing…"
“Well…the Globe or the public execution…” Bruna took a sip from her tea." It’s Mother Mercy on the chopping block today. A lot of people going to see it."
“You’re going to work there today?” Frina stifled a cough.
“Aye, plenty of people there with purses who would love to see some street performance after a beheading.” Bruna finished her breakfast before she drank the rest of her tea." I’ll be back by lunchtime." Bruna opened the closet that held their coats and picked up her lucky hood. A white thing shaped like an eagle’s head with it’s beak being the tip of the front part of the hood. She found it on a sleeping dwarf on a cold night the previous year, just something to keep her head warm. Ever since she started to wear it her job for some reason became a lot easier. She never left the house without it, even on the rare few dates with Frina to a restaurant when the money was there.
Frina coughed as Bruna put on her white coat." I’m still going to that audition."
“No you’re not! You’re to ill.“
The half-elf stood.” We don’t have the money for me to sit idle. If I don’t go we’ll starve!”
“Don’t you worry about the money, I got that covered.” Bruna put on her shoes." I’ll see you later.“
Frilna wrapped her scarf around herself.” Don’t treat me like an invalid! I’m sick, not dying!“
She glared.” My mother was sick to first before she died in a winter like this. You’re not going, end of story!“
The sickness was gone now, replaced by anger.” You’re just like my mother, always telling me what to do! I left home to escape that!“
Anger replied to anger.” If you want to get yourself killed, fine! I won’t stop you!" Bruna snapped and wrapped the scarf around her own neck angrily.
“Bruna-” Frina tried to say but Bruna left the house and slammed the door behind her.
She hated arguing with Frina. They’ve been arguing for the past three days. It always started over something stupid like leaving the door open and letting all the heat out or who ate the last piece of bread without notifying the other. The passion of their love seemed to have died out. No sudden romantic surprises, none of the constant compliments, no sudden adventures in the higher richer areas of the city, no out of nowhere shag.
The last time they made love was over two months ago.
When they first went out, the world seemed just a tad bit brighter. The exotic actress whose voice could melt your inside, whose urge for adventure always kept you going to places you would never expect, eating fine foods and drink with the elite. Bruna didn’t expect the fire to remain lit forever, they were together for three years now and she loved every moment of it…but still she didn’t want that fire to be completely gone and replaced by the muck and gray of normal every day life. But she loved her so much. Wished for nothing more than be together with her. But that feeling of embers made her lash out.
She wasn’t angry at Frina but at herself. The last of the money didn’t go Tina’ studies. There was a bit more but it was spend at the Lady Jasmine.
She spend the night there with one of the men, she even forgot his name. He was handsome looking and she could afford him. She just wanted to feel something. The passion felt good in the moment, for the hour she had him he had her any way a man could be with a woman. Afterwards when she left the Jasmine the guilt struck her like a mallet. That was a week ago. Never again, she swore.
She would work hard to give Frina the house she deserved, to give Tina the future she deserved.
The first thing she would do with the money is get a doctor for Frina, fix that cough. And then they would dine like kings on the best food the black market had to offer.
Bruna made her way downward, through the slightly decayed stairs and ladders of the high rise building that once served as an apartment. She had neighbours in some of the rooms but most kept to themselves. Mostly people with little money like her, criminals hiding from the city watch and spice addicts.
She didn’t make her way groundside entirely like Tiny Tina but jumped off a higher level towards the ramparts.
The first time she saw the undead clawing at the walls her heart stopped. It was as an ocean of death given teeth and claws. Most of the undead were human or gobbos but there were times she swore she saw Blighters who were once children as old as Tiny Tina. The thought of losing her little sister to the dead was always on her mind.
She swore a second oath to her dead mother, if the dead were to break through the wall and the end would come…she would make sure Tina wouldn’t come back as one.
“This is all King Halmadir’s fault…” she heard a voice grumble. She reprimanded herself, to sunken into her thoughts to notice the guard’s footsteps on the snow. Quickly Bruna darted to the side behind a small wall on a lower rung of the wall. She swore the guards that snuck up behind her should’ve seen her but ever since she started wearing the white hood, she seemed to have an easier time avoid being seen.
It did not take long before she saw two of the city watch walk side by side, bearing the tabard of Gryphon’s Crown. Both were human, one a older pudgier man with an eyepatch and the second a younger man who was about her age.
“What are you on about?” the second younger guard replied.
“Well King Halmadir is supposed to guard out east flank, aye?” The first asked to which the second grunted in affirmation." Well ever since we captured his daughter the undead have come through. Doesn’t take a genius to find out he’s led them to our walls.“
The younger guard raised his brow.” Are you daft? No human being would ever send the dead on their enemies! Especially not a goddamn war hero like Halmadir.“
Their footsteps stopped as the older man pointed his finger.” You said it! Human! You can’t trust an elf. Pointy eared tree huggers…" he motioned to the undead below." A month ago when their giant spiders scaled the wall and attacked us, it wasn’t the elves who came to help! We had to rely on ourselves! Proper steel spears and dwarven shot!"
Bruna remembered the start of the siege very well. Although she had her family holed up in their houses, they could see the action from above very well. The fighting was fierce at first, as was with every siege when two mortal armies fought. The undead did not have appliances such as ladders or rams but they had giant spiders that could swallow men whole and giants that could smash gates to kindling.
When Tina started to cry, Bruna told her that the city’s walls, ramparts and gatehouses were made by the children of the mountain, for their kin intermarried with the human nobility long ago. They sculpted the walls like a artisan would sculpt clay, they provided blunderbusses and cannons that could blow holes through giants and had built tunnels all under the city for easy access. The steel gates were made from the strongest of metal the mountain holds to the north had to offer and brave men and dwarves defended the wall. As long as the city existed, Gryphon’s Crown would never fall.
Bruna saw the spiders climb up the wall as they met steel spears, dwarven shot and the ferocious tenacity that was the proud defenders of Gryphon’s Crown. When the spiders slew some of the defenders, their corpses did not rise to join the attackers for the Cyclop priests and priestesses had blessed the fallen with eternal slumber. So when the proud human and dwarven drove off the first few waves of undead it was only a matter of time before the old game of any siege began. One side starving out the other.
It would be until spring when reinforcements could arrive from the knights of Dawnford to liberate the city. By then many wold either have died of the cold or starvation. She held her arms around herself to try and keep warm with short bursts of shudders. A trick she learned from her mother.
The younger guard seemed to share Bruna’s thoughts." Doesn’t matter if the Blighters never get through, we’ll starve to death before spring’s here…“
The older man nodded. He paused for a moment before he spoke.” Say lad…you ever heard of the mole king?"
Bruna hid behind the post still but leaned in close, she heard of the mole king before…
“The mole king?” the younger man asked.
"Aye. The king rules the surface and the Cyclop priests rule the hearts of men but the mole king rules the underworld. It’ said he is one of the dwarves who helped build the city so many years ago. A simple builder with an nose for business. He build tunnels across the city, short cuts from place to place. Hideouts, eavesdropping spots, dead drops, smuggle roads, the whole shebang. His small gang of himself and some of his fellow builders is now the ruling elite of the entire Gryphon Crown’s underworld. Any bank robbery, any murder on an official, every bribe only happens with his say so."
Bruna frowned, sounded like a fairy tale.
“So…what’s that got to do with this?” the younger man asked.
“Well…” he pulled the younger man closer." I know a man who knows a man that can get you some smuggled in food for a fair price…none of that extra tax that goes to the king for…renovations." She saw the older man hold up his fingers as quotation marks.
The younger man looked shocked." But…that’s an capital offense!“
His older colleague replied with a snort.” Cant support an family with my salary, especially with the food prices rising."
“Dear God…” the younger man sighed." …is this normal? I mean do the others know?"
“Oh aye, even the captain buys her food from the black market. It’s either that or start eating the flesh of the dead like those poor sods we found in the slums last week.“
She heard the younger man gulp.” I…tried to forget that…“
A moment paused as both looked over the sea of the undead himself, Bruna trying to stop her teeth from clattering.
“So…do you see this mole king?” the young guard asked.
The older man shook his head.” No, he only sees you when he wants to see you.“
A few moments later the guards started to move on.” If you change your mind, just ask me alright Daniel?”
“Ta, Irwin…” the younger replied.
Bruna waited a few more heartbeats before she walked a bit further on the ramparts. She got off a few steps later towards a shortcut to the main forum of the city.
She knew the alleys like the back of her hand, which ways to go. She passed by people who sought warmth around burning metal barrels, a ‘gift’ from the king to look after his people. Shame about the no food thing but you can at least roast yourself on the fire, Bruna thought angrily.
She ignored most of the pleas for alms, she had nothing to spare herself. She took a right turn after the bird splattered statue of some dwarf when she heard faint moans.
At first she thought a person was in trouble and quickly ran to the noise. She quickly stopped when he saw the noise in question was a dalliance between one of the city guard and a rather plump maid. His trousers were halfway undone as he had his way with her, his head covered in the nape of her neck as their lovemaking reached a crescendo. Bruna felt like an idiot for a moment until he could see a glimpse of the guard in question. The scar on his cheek and the long flowing brown hair was all she needed to see. Captain Convenus, one of the captains of the more richer side of town. Married to the bastard daughter of the king and supposedly in his good graces. She frowned, why would anyone risk an affair with someone as mundane as a maid?
She noticed she was staring and quickly made herself scarce and walked quickly towards the forum.
Several men, both human and dwarf, were straying salt around them to melt the snow. When none looked she pinched a small bit and put it in a small bag. Something to spicen the food with later.
The cold dissipated when she reached the large forum. A large crowd of people milled around the giant stockades. Loud muttering and speech covered up her steps perfectly. Two guards were stood on the stockades, their eyes hidden behind visors. She saw a goblin behind a stall, selling rotten tomatoes for the upcoming execution. One gold coin for five tomatoes, a bargain. Already a huge row was filing in front of the stall as the goblin gladly sold his wares to the crowd. Looks like he was making a killing, pun not intended.
“Over there, look It’s starting.” She heard one of the crowd say. Bruna’s gaze went to a small opening forced by the guard as they had the prisoner in their midst.
Bruna is no stranger to executions, she had seen her fair share, but to see a Cyclops Priestess in chains and battered was something new. People began to boo at her, calling her a killer. Heretic and betrayer. But yet she kept her chin held up high. A Cyclops priest ascended the stockades with more guards.
It was time to get to work.
She unclipped a small knife from her belt and picked her target. A fat merchant with his purse on his belt was intently staring at the proceedings. With a quick flick of the wrist the man was separated from his coin. She quickly placed the coin purse in her coat before moving on.
“Children of God, hear me!” She heard the priest shout." The time for justice has come! Before us stands the woman who once was called Mother Mercy, now Abigail the disgraced daughter of King Halmadir! Leader of the Children of Light who is guilty for murder, theft, desecration and heresy!" More boos and tomatoes were thrown.
Bruna did not care as she picked another target, this time a wealthy older looking woman holding arms with younger man. Her son or lover, Bruna didn’t care. Another quick flick of the wrist and so to her purse was now in Bruna’s hands.
Two bags now. On a good day she would stop and not risk it. But she had to keep going, to get that money for Frina.
"It’s her fault the dead now scale our walls! It’s her fault we now have forever lost the cure to the Blight and the aid of our friend King Halmadir! Were it not for our saviour Lord Harold Barnsworth she would still be litting the countryside ablaze in what she claims is heresy!“
This made Bruna look up. There was a cure to the Blight?
The priest turned to Mother Mercy.” How do you plead?"
This time Mother Mercy spoke. "The cure was not a cure but a mix of dark magicks and heathen rituals. All those involved deserved death by cleansing fire. God himself told me to save your souls. I did as he asked. Now…my task is done. Now I will rest."
The audience booed loudly once more. Bruna noticed a few did not however as if they gave Mother Mercy silent support.
When Mother Mercy was pushed on her knees, the executioner was brought up. He was a dwarf dressed in black armour and a hood. He moved like a professional, kneeling next to the victim as he whispered to her. She gave a nod and muttered something before he stood up.
“May God have mercy on your soul…and may he forgive us for allowing us to let you so far astray…” the Priest nodded at the executioner. A swift flash and the life of Mother Mercy, Princess Abigail of the elven people…was over.
People cheered as her head landed on the stockades, a fever pitch ignited. Then there was a panic. A chaos. At first she thought she was caught. But then the crowd began to scream. She smelt blood.
Bruna was running, she did not know why. But her instinct told her to run.
She looked up. The guards were hauling off the Cyclop Priest as dark figures were assailing them. The dwarven executioner was fighting some blackness, Bruna couldn’t quite see. A woman screamed briefly before one such black shape descended on her and blood flew from her jugular.
“The dead!” someone cried." The dead have breached the wall!“
Bruna ran back into the alleys, past the confused homeless people she saw earlier.
“Run!” she screamed.” The dead are here!" Her lungs were going to burst out of her chest but she kept running. Her heart screamed for a break, a moment to catch her breath. For a moment she almost decided to stop.
Even before the homeless started screaming behind her she knew she was still in danger. She felt a hand on her shoulder, her stomach churned and turned cold, just like the breath in her neck.
A old habit kicked in, one her mother taught her. She threw the salt behind her as an inhuman scream deafened her. She did not stop and kept running.
The next thing she knew she was in a tunnel. She remembered entering one, her path blocked by the guard.
She took a moment to catch her breath, the fire in her lungs extinguished when cold air entered them. She took off her hood and patted off the dirt and dried blood from it. The eagle like beak stared at her. A faint smile appeared on her lips.
“My lucky hood…” she said in between breaths and placed it back on her head.
When she felt she could breath normally again she looked backward. The way was pitch black and filled with grime. But she did not feel lost. She turned to look in front of her and kept going. As if she knew where to go.
Her minds went to Tina and Frina. Were the dead really inside the city? Were they safe? She had to make it out of these tunnels, her sole focus on her family.
She expected the tunnels would lead her to an exit or a sewer…instead she arrived at what could be described as a underground castle.
Torches were all over the place, making the area feel nice and warm. The damp was gone, tapestries and portraits hung on the nice clean marble walls. She saw statues, piles of coin on tables and a large table.
At the large table was a dwarf, a old dwarf who was tinkering at some mechanical contraption. A large green single eye binocular was over one eye. Across of him was a bowl of soup and a spoon…but it was facing away from him, towards her. She turned around and saw the entrance she just came in was gone, replaced by a marble wall.
“Come now, Miss Griffsdottir.” the dwarf said in a kind voice." I do not bite."
“How can I trust you?” she asked.
The dwarf looked up from his work, a kind smile." Because I wanted to see you. No-one can see me unless I want to them to." He motioned her over. She hesitated.
“I promise you will see your lover and little sister again and I promise you they are quite safe.” he smiled.
“The attack at the market place was not aimed at them.“
She shuffled her feed.” Do I have your word?“
He placed his hand on his chest.” As a child of the mountain and by my beard, I give you my word.”
Bruna always followed her gut feeling and had a excellent judge of character. She knew who the trust and who to avoid the moment she first lays eyes on them. Now she felt…like she could trust him.
She stepped forward cautiously before sitting down across of the old dwarf. Her habits kicked in again as she took off her head and politely placed it on her lap. The chair felt nice and comfy. Like she could sit back and fall asleep. She fought that feeling however. She took up the spoon and gave it a sniff. The old dwarf did not say anything and waited politely for her. She took a sip from the soup…and eagerly began eating more. She couldn’t recall the last time she had tomato soup.
“You probably can guess who I am.“
She gave a nod.” The mole king.”
“Aye.” he confirmed.
Her eyes scanned him. He seemed more like a tinker, a kindly grandfather than a kingpin." I thought you would be different.“
He looked confused.” Different how?“
Bruna shrugged.” Just…different. Perhaps bigger? More scars? Not…" she waved towards him.
The dwarf looked to his vest before he went back to her." Oh, this? It’s my casual wear? Normally I do wear a suit of some kind when I meet anyone. But since time was of the essence there was no time for formalities…" he leaned back." How do you like my hood?"
Bruna’s eyes went to her hood on her lap.
“Oh yes, that hood was mine once. It served me well in my early years…I had it from a dear friend of mine from Arabiana. Her organisation all wore a similar attire. It’s a strange thing. With it you move more swiftly, know you way around every street and tunnel. One of my wizards had it tested and believed the hood enhances your mind in such a way that it…liberates your subconscious.” He placed his machine down and took off his one eye glass. “Tell me…have you ever heard the story about a mother being able to lift a whole cart with her bare hands to save her child trapped beneath it? Or of a miner being able to hold a wooden beam long enough for his friends to escape a collapsing tunnel?“
Bruna decided to try the soup and found it delicious.” I heard some of those, yes.“
The mole king smiled and placed a finger on his temple.” The mind is our greatest gift and our greatest curse. For without thought we would be like the Immortals outside. A beast forced to act on our base impulses. Eat to life, not life to feed as my nan used to say.”
“Why did you call me here, Mr Mole King?” she asked." Do you want me to return your hood to you?“
He shook his head.” No, if I wanted it returned to me you wouldn’t be here. It took me a year to find out what exactly. It was when you outran that vampire that I knew you had that little something more. Potential to be what I need to protect this city.“
She raised her brow.” Protect? All the stories say you are a criminal mastermind. You organise gang wars, smuggling rings…“
He leant his head on his hand.” True, I do all these things…because if it wasn’t me I would be someone else. Someone more inclined to incite riots, target the weak constantly and promote violence against the king. I helped build his city, I’ll be damned to see it fall."
“The Blight?” she took another spoonful of the soup.
He shook his head." Far worse my dear…my friends in Arabiana and Van Xia have recently confirmed that their largest threat has made landfall in Bucktooth Bay and have begun their march south towards us. You’ve managed to outrun one of them…"
Her mind went back to the black shapes that attacked the crowd, the blood and limbs that flew everywhere. The inhuman scream that nearly deafened her. She only saw a glimpse, a pale face of a creature. Long fangs, caked in blood, in a black robe.
“What were they?” Bruna asked." Why did they attack? “
“As to why I do not know but as to who…the Citadel once called them the Liberus Nocturna. The living night, eager to devour the mortal realm. You will know them as vampires.“
A chuckle came from Bruna’s mouth.” Vampires are a myth! They are just like black dragons and monsters that sleep under your bed.”
“Oh but they are real and you believe it to. If you didn’t you wouldn’t have thrown that salt over your shoulder.” the older dwarf sat up.” We believe what we want to believe. Some people believe Halmadir abandoned Sanctuary and Gryphon’s Crown because we killed his daughter, others believe he left the land because he couldn’t bear the shame…The hood has trained your mind to be open, to be able to see the monsters that sleep under your bed. There is a reason why we keep telling stories to each other ever since our ancestors first huddled over the campfire. To bound and to remember. To keep growing as a species."
The thief looked confused. “I…don’t understand.” She placed the spoon on the now empty plate.
The mole king smiled." Your God has created your people and mine to take care of the land. To mould Alundria to what we want it to be. He has given us independent thought for a reason, both for good and for ill. I love the mortals. I see them help others selflessly in their soup kitchens, I see them beat their children and cheat on their wives, I see them build structures that take decades to create, I see them rally under a banner to defend those whom they love, I see them create works of art that echo across history…I see them use the gift God gave them. This evil from Arabiana wishes to undo all that. To destroy free thought and became as mindless as the Blight."
“What do you want me to do? Join your…war?” she frowned." I’m no warrior."
“I want you to consider. You can steal and sneak, excellent abilities for a spy. The pen is mightier than the sword for a reason, Lady Griffinsdottir. With your help my people can find these vampires in this city and end them.”
The dwarf stood up." But that is your choice." He pulled out two bags from under his table and placed them on it." Some gold to help you until then.“
The thief took a moment before she held out her hood. The dwarf shook his head.” No trade. Remember, if I wanted it back it would be by now." He moved his hand towards one of the walls, a moment later it slid open from the left to the right." If you follow this tunnel you will end at the Lady Jasmine. The staff will not ask you questions. Return there in three days if you want to join us, ask for us." He turned to leave.
She took a step outside before she stopped, gold bags in her coat." Wait, ask for who?“
The dwarf smiled.” The Undying."