The wind rushes past Ben’s ears as he leans out on the deck of the ship. The river glistens amber in the evening sun. After the events that took place at Folngrove, the soothing air and water was a welcome change of pace. Not so for others in the party, however…
“Urrghhh…” Norixus leans over the railing, his stomach churning. “Is this what riding a boat feels like…? Why didn’t we take the airship…”
Ben chuckles, giving Norixus a coy smile. “What? Can’t handle the corking?”
“Well, I mean this is my first time…”
Norixus feels his stomach begin to tumble. “Oh god, hold on…”
“Oi Oi… are you gonna—”
Slimy retching sounds shatter Ben’s tranquility as Norixus empties his stomach off the side of the boat.
Ben winces, shaking his head. “Gnarly.”
“Gotta… write this down…” Norixus pauses to spit vomit out of his mouth. “…Boats… are… AWFUL!”
Valse sighs. “I would’ve much preferred the airship myself… there’s a reason the dwarven navy is so weak. We’re not known to float well…”
Ben shrugs with a discontent face. “I dunno, I’m enjoying my time…” He shudders and rubs his eyes. “Like hell I was gonna get on that airship, man… at least if the boat crashes, we’ll have a chance for surviving.”
“Never underestimate the power of dwarven engineering.”
“I’m not underestimating them, but you never know. Especially with all the stuff that’s been happening recently, this feels like a safer option.”
Yet more retching sounds echo across the deck. James sighs, leaning against the railing. “You guys truly bring me wrath. HOW do you guys feel this bad being on boats?”
“Seasickness, pal,” Willington says as he tunes his lute. “Wouldn’t blame them—the first moments of me being on a moving boat brought something acidic to the back of my throat.”
James rolls his eyes. “So? It’s just food poisoning but without the poison.”
Criollo sighs. “Ergh… how long till we get to the city?”
Valse scans the horizon. “By the looks of things, we’re about a day out now.”
The sharp chime of a bell rings out from below deck. It seems the captain is signaling dinnertime…
“Finally—can’t remember the last time I had a decent meal,” Criollo says as he heads below deck.
“Oh god…” Norixus slowly leans back from the railing. “I dunno if I’ll be able to eat…”
The party proceeds below deck, entering the mess hall. It is a well-worn, but strangely comforting place. Amber banners drape from the walls, the aroma of savory food wafting through the air. A single long table sits in the center, smattered with a variety of hearty, succulent dishes.
A grizzled-looking man in a captain’s uniform steps out from the kitchen. “Eat up, y’all. This is authentic Ambstalt grub we’re serving up here—it ain’t cheap.”
“These sure do look appetizing,” Joe says, taking a seat.
“Mhm,” Willington picks up a fork. “Time to dig in.”
The party begins to feast—most of them can’t even remember the last time they weren’t subsisting off of hard, dry rations. Fresh seafood, seasoned with exotic spices. Glazed, tender meats garnished with crisp, fresh vegetables. Fluffy rolls of bread softer than clouds—it was a meal fit for royalty.
“Mmm…” Valse says, swallowing her food. “My compliments to the chef. It’s been a while since I’ve had anything like this.”
“Finger lickin’ good,” Rognalad says as he licks sauce from his fingers. His fork appears noticeably untouched…
“This meal is unlike anything I ever had in the forest!” Joe says, his eyes awash wish childlike wonder. “The civilized sure have created some magnificent things…”
Ben lets out a hearty burp, leaning back in his chair. “This beats everything I had to eat in the slums, man!”
The captain chuckles. “Glad y’all like it—whoever paid for this ship chose for y’all the most premium of services. You won’t see food like this anywhere near the slums.”
Ben’s ears perk up. He swallows his food before looking at the captain. “The slums? Are you from there?”
“I’ve been around that city,” the captain says, lighting his pipe. “The official name for the slums is the Block, but there’s a reason why people call it the Chopping Block.” He takes a drag of his pipe, before chuckling grimly. “Spend too long there and your head may fall off.”
Ben gives the captain a nod, his face turning grim. “Yea, I would know. Growing up there was rough, having to fight for every little thing.”
“Why would my head fall off?” Rognalad asks, his mouth still full.
James facepalms. “Is your neck as thick as your skull?”
The captain waves his hand. “Gangs, criminals, street thugs. The bad water and sewage systems. Plenty of reasons you’d go kaput.”
“Sounds like quite the lovely place,” Joe mutters.
“Have you been there recently?” Ben asks. “I’m planning on stopping through once we land in Ambstalt.”
“I wouldn’t head anywhere near there without good reason right now,” the captain answers. “Gang presence has been growing more and more powerful these past few months.”
“Let me guess,” James says, twirling his fork. “Just weeny daggers and shivs?”
Ben gives James the side eye. “More like sharpened blades perfect for tearing your guts out, James.”
“Any notable gangs over there?” Norixus asks.
The captain strokes his beard. “It’s unclear, but it’s definitely more than one. Not your neighborhood cartel either. We’re talking big, organized crime.”
Ben grits his teeth and gives an angry nod. “I’ll keep my eyes and ears out—wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to deal with them… though, the fact that organized crime is getting big is a bit of a surprise. When I was growing up, they’d use the slums for drug deals and that was it—all the heads were operating in the city.”
“Tell me about it. The city’s usually got a knack for cracking down. Dunno what’s up with them lately.”
“Bribery, I’m betting,” James says, finishing his food.
“Good bet, though there has to be more to it than that,” Norixus says.
“Mm… it could be recruitment purposes,” Ben gazes around the group. “The kids in the slums have nothing—if you offered them a good meal, they’ll be loyal for the rest of their lives.”
“Hm, makes sense,” Willington says, finishing his food.
Ben gives the captain a grateful nod. “Thanks for the heads up—I’ll be keeping it in mind.” His eyes flash with determination as he starts to grin slightly. “Nothing’s gonna keep me from returning home; especially not some thugs who can just stroll in and act like they own the place.”
“Sure,” James says, tilting his head. “But imagine if we like, hit a rock on the way here and it broke a giant hole in the boat.” He chuckles. “That shit would be genuinely wrath-inducing.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the captain waves his hand. “This boat has magical wards on it to prevent that sort of stuff. Premium service, y’know?”
Ben gives a curious hum, looking up. “You really can do anything with magic, huh?”
“Interesting,” Norixus says, opening his journal. “Magical wards to prevent accidents like that? Is it too expensive to do on every boat?”
“Of course it is!” James says.
“If y’all are curious about magic,” the captain says, leaning forward in his chair, “Ambstalt is home to the Ambstalt Academy—one of the most renowned universities this side of Yomi. Might be worth a visit.”
Ben gives Rognalad a cheeky grin. “Oi, does that sound up your alley?”
“…No, I have no need for conventional magic schools,” Rognalad says, mouth full.
Ben chuckles, leaning back in his chair. “Hehe, figured you’d say somethin’ like that.”
The captain slowly nods. “Heh. Not from around here, are ya?”
Rognalad shrugs. “Can’t say I know where I’m from exactly; my memory only goes a few years back.”
The captain smirks. “I suppose if an academy that’s floating in the sky above the city is too ordinary for you, then it might not be worth your time…”
The party’s eyes go wide. “Sounds like quite the place, I shall give it a visit if I get the chance,” Joe comments.
“Mhm. Them mages there have got some real crazy spells, that’s for sure,” the captain replies.
Ben lets out a nostalgic sigh. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like, the sight from up there… looking up at it from the slums always made it seem imposing, and it was a dream among us kids to be up that high.
“Well, should we make that school one of our first stops then?” Norixus asks.
“I wasn’t the most enthusiastic about it though…” Ben shudders and shakes his head. “I dunno, man… freaks me out just thinking about being up that high.”
“Ambstalt’s a big city,” the captain says. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty to do. From the looks of it, someone really wants y’all there anyway, if they’re willing to spend this much on transportation.”
“Hm?” Ben’s ears perk up, and he starts thinking again. “Actually, that is a good question… Oi, captain, do you know anything about the magistrate from Folngrove? He seems way too wealthy for a village of that size.”
The captain chuckles. “Heh. Of course I do. It’s an open secret among many who do business with the higher-ups in the government that many council members who have issues with the council or royalty are often given the opportunity to govern outlying villages and towns. Given that, they usually have many existing connections with the people in Ambstalt; especially those affiliated with the government.”
“Hm… that explains a lot, then.”
“Huh, guess he’s just a member of some sort of council,” Willington remarks. “Clears up the suspicions.”
The captain sighs as he stands up from his chair. “Well, y’all should get some sleep. Ambstalt awaits tomorrow!”
“Right,” Norixus says, getting up. “Thanks for the meal, by the way.”
“Heh. Thank whoever sent ya for the g’s. I’ll be resting easy this month with all this gold.”
Ben stands up, stretching. “The food was awesome, thanks Cap’n.” He clenches his fists and gives a determined nod. “Y’know, being this close to home is making me nervous—and here I thought I’d be ready for this day.”
Willington takes his last bite and stands up. “Hm, Ben… don’t you have any friends back at the slums? Considering you grew up there?”
“That is true,” Norixus adds. “You probably can’t survive there on your own—especially as a kid.”
“Hm?” Ben gives as coy smile, chuckling. “If they’re not dead or left already, then yea. I’m kind of hopin’ some of them stuck around—I miss those rats. Plus, I can learn about this increase in gang activity.”
“Might be nice to reconnect,” Willington says, stretching his arms and sighing. “Gonna go hit the sack—have a nice night!”
“Well, I should do the same—gotta pray to Katigda before bed,” Norixus says. “Goodnight, guys.”
“I will do the same, goodnight to you all,” Joe says as he steps away.”
Ben waves off the others as memories return to him. “Imma head to bed too.” As he walks to his room, he mutters quietly to himself. “I wonder if the old man is still there…”
· · ·
A vision of a winged male humanoid shimmers to life. A halo of light is wreathed around its head, white and golden robes flowing behind it in gentle warm wind. It seems… content…
Valse wakes with a start, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “…Firmaren?”
Ben blinks, looking around his room. “The hell…?” he mutters quietly, rubbing his eyes.
“That angel again…” Norixus says, yawning.
“These Gods need to stop screwin’ with my dreams…” Ben says, stretching. “I was having a good one too.”
“I’m sure it means we’re on the right track…” Valse says, getting out of bed. “That was Firmaren for sure. Oh hallowed one, bless us with your protection on our journey…”
James blinks the sleep from his eyes. “I genuinely forgot we had gods watching us.”
“Mm, that’s cool,” Ben mutters absentmindedly, his thoughts focused on the party’s imminent arrival at Ambstalt.
Norixus glances slowly at Ben. “You nervous?”
Ben yawns, hopping out of bed. “A bit, but…” he bangs his knuckles together, giving his trademark grin. “I’m starting to feel excited—it’s been years since I’ve last been to Ambstalt—and most importantly, the slums.”
“It should be about daybreak now,” Valse says. “Should we head up to the deck?”
The first rays of morning light have just begun cresting over the mountains behind. At the end of the river is a set of tall, lightly-colored stone walls, laced with golden amber. They stand tall at over 200 feet high—the city itself is also enormous, with a diameter of at least 50 miles. Several powerful galleons line the river ahead, their flags billowing silver and amber.
“…Whoa…” Norixus says, jaw dropping. “I never thought I would see such a large city…”
Ben inhales deeply, gazing at the walls with wonder… and deep contempt. He stays silent, his mouth a thin line.
“The City of Amber…” Willington says, eyes wide.
“Wow, these walls are…” Criollo raises his brows. “…really tall.”
“These walls are a monument to the power of humanity,” Valse said, smiling. “They didn’t used to be this tall, nor this thick—but over generations, powerful human mages alongside collaboration with the dwarves and the elves have managed to bolster them to this size. It’s why the city has stayed impenetrable throughout the Millennium War.”
The boat proceeds towards the city. Galleon escorts bearing the insignia of Ambstalt—an amber circle with a crenellated rim surrounding a silver sword crossed with a golden lance—begin travelling alongside the ship.
“Oh look, company,” Criollo says, resting his hand on his weapon warily.
“Are we being… escorted?” Norixus asks.
“Gotta say their insignia is pretty cool-looking,” Rognalad quips.
“Security’s a bit tight right now, what with all that’s going on,” the captain says. “Normally they aren’t like this.”
Ben gazes angrily at the galleons, his fists clenching. “What’s happening wouldn’t be an issue if they gave even a bit of care for the people in the slums,” he mutters beneath his breath.
The boat continues towards the city walls. It stops before a massive steel gate, which slowly slides open into a long tunnel leading through the wall. Its inside is dotted with cannons and murder holes…
Norixus glances around. “That’s a lot of defense…”
“Charming,” Ben comments sarcastically.
At last, the party arrives at a dock in a heavily fortified sector of the city. The buildings are all reinforced with steel and thick concrete. Armed guards and heavy artillery line the nearby buildings, draped with banners bearing a silver longsword.
“This is the Keep,” the captain explains. “We came in through a side entrance. Most boats have to sail out to the ocean and enter through the docks on the other side of the city.”
Ben grits his teeth as he gazes at the banners. “The Silver Blades… the city’s ‘beloved’ police force.” Memories of his childhood come crawling back… none of them pleasant.
The boat docks, and the party begins to disembark. Immediately, they are surrounded by guards, one of which approaches the party.
“Welcome to Ambstalt,” the guard says, his hand resting on his sheathed longsword. “Please follow us for security screening.”
“You’ve gotta be…” Ben mutters under his breath, slinking to the back of the group. He gives each of the other party members a look—one that screams “don’t do anything stupid.”
Criollo eyes the guards, whispering to Ben. “Have these guys always been this uptight?”
“They had stations exactly like these right outside the slums, but this is the first time I’ve seen it this tight in the city.”
The party is led to a heavily fortified complex, whereupon their belongings are searched, and they are patted down. After about an hour, they pass the security checkpoint and exit out into a courtyard. A road leads down to the left, and one to the right, with a signpost in the middle depicting a map of the city sector—the Keep, home to the city’s police force. To the left is the Block, to the right is Bathory Park, and towards the center of the city is the Sanctum.
Ben lets out an angry exhale, turning to the group. “Let’s get the hell outta this place as quickly as we can. We’ve only got one human with us, and I don’t want to deal with that bullshit any longer.”
“Joe’s a human as well,” James comments.
“He doesn’t act like one.”
James gives Ben the side-eye. “You’re even more racist than that tax collector.”
Ben gives Joe a pat on the shoulder and the best sly smile he can muster. “Only kidding.” He approaches the map, reading its contents. “I’d like to check on the Block as soon as possible but… if you lot want to check out the Academy first, I won’t make a big deal about it.”
“Personally, I want to go to the academy,” Norixus comments. He looks over Ben’s shoulder… it appears the academy is located in the Corridor, the metropolitan financial center of the city on its opposite end. It seems there is also an underground network of trains that connects the district—a subway of sorts.
“…Huh,” Norixus comments. “What is this ‘subway’ system?”
“Aw hell, the subways? You guys want to go there?” Ben shakes his head. “No way; we’re walking.”
“What, somebody tried to grope you in that place?” James jokes.
“Everyone tries to grope someone in that place, especially if you’re not a human.”
Rognalad smirks. “Do hot women do it?”
Valse gazes at the map. “If this is anything like the transportation systems in Ur, it’s likely a steam-powered system of carriages on tracks, running underground. It’s a feature of dwarven cities.”
“Like I said, let’s walk,” Ben repeats. “I’d rather not ride the subways…”
“Well, since you know the most about this city, I suppose that isn’t a bad idea,” Norixus says. “Though, remind me to get on a train later… I need to write the experience down in my journal.”
“Yeah, let’s get moving,” Valse says as the party heads off towards the academy.