Discorsi: The Other Strategy Guide Edit
Part 2: Windmill Tavern and Southern Shore Edit
Continued from Part 1 -- San Pasquale
I had business of my own in Venice, and I prepared to leave the next day. Since I did not know whether or not the gorge was already passable, I planned for the mountain route as a contingency. The mountain route starts as a hidden, overgrown and barely traceable footpath behind the ancient ruins above San Pasquale and rapidly becomes worse. Some sections are no more than a deer run, and considerable climbing is required to reach the saddle between two peaks – a wide, sweeping rock to the east and a jagged pinnacle to the west. These mountains present a formidable barrier between the San Pasquale mountains and the foothills that lead to the shore. The descent into the Bay is murder for my knees at my age, and the steep downhill sections are what I dreaded most. On the plus side, I did not expect any Assassins on that route. Although… after the attack on the village, it would have been most satisfying to sneak up behind one and nudge him down a precipice. As life plays out, however, things became entirely different.
On my way out, I ran into Casimir, who seemed to be still under shock after the events of the last few days. It was difficult for me to follow his version of the events as he was erratically jumping from one subject to the next. Demons in one sentence, his cousin in the next, and some heirloom in the next. The part that I could make sense of was that Scarlett, accompanied by Don and Nesto, arrived and actually cleared the tunnel from whatever lurked in there, and that they moved on to the Windmill Tavern and on to Venice. Clearly, there was no need for me to take the summit trail.
From Casimir’t tale I should have been prepared, but the tunnel still presented a grisly sight. Two strange six-limbed creatures lay there, sliced and slain, but entirely bloodless, as if they were not from this world – obviously, the demons people are talking about. Evidently, Scarlett’s Moonblade was able to kill them, as rumors had it. The worst sight was Casimir’s cousin Rupert, or what was left of him after the demons searched his body… quite thoroughly.
At length, I reached the shore. However, instead of passing the Windmill Tavern and crossing the bridge into Venice, I decided to first pay a visit to a good friend. He is a trader of sorts – let’s say, a import-export business entrepreneur, so he has dealings with people who would not find the Doge’s approval. For his safety, I will refer to him only as the Hermit. The Hermit lives in a cove east of the Shore, and halfway up the cliffs, he has made his home in a cave – much more comfortable than this would superficially sound. The steep descent to the cove is well-hidden. Right after a river crossing, where the road makes a right turn, one has to climb a boulder to the left and follow the erosion caused by some water runoff. The trail is barely visible, but then, this is how the Hermit wants it. There is an enmity between him and the Innkeeper, who would have the dealings with the ships for himself, and I suspect that the Innkeeper would have gladly staged a, well, accident, to eliminate his competition. In fact, it was just such a dodgy situation where I was able to prevent a fatal fall that earned me the Hermit’s friendship.
The Hermit greeted me warmly, and we came right to the recent events in San Pasquale. He listened with interest to my recollection of the Assassin’s assault on the village, but more importantly, he had his own information to share.
“You know the old aqueducts, the Water Gateway, right, that supplies Venice with fresh water? It is like a hornet’s nest, swarming with those killers. This is their quarters. And… they no longer work alone, but go in groups instead.”, the Hermit told me, “usually three or four of them, led by a Dervish Master.”
“But aren’t they much more conspicuous that way? Wouldn’t they catch the attention of the Doge’s guards?”
The Hermit gave a small laugh. “They work for the Doge. The Assassins have nothing to fear.”
“So the Doge himself is the leader of the Assassins, is what you are telling me?”
“No, at least not directly. Their leader is a woman, right? They refer to her simply as the Mistress. She is the leader of the Assassin’s Guild, the one who gives the orders, and she personally punishes those who fail to carry out her orders.”
“A Mistress of Assassins…”, I mused. “If she is removed, then, would the Guild fall apart?”
“Yes”, he replied, “but this may be more difficult than it sounds. She seems to have survived several rough fights right before the Doge rose to power. Some say she is a powerful necromancer. Most agree that she knows magic. There are even those voices who claim that she cannot be killed.”
“Can’t be killed? Surely there must be a way…”
The Hermit interrupted me, “You have seen those Lectors, right? Beasts as ugly as the Abyss, six legs, bulging eyes, rat’s teeth? Like to chew on books? They can’t be killed either – Just ask Rupert at the Gorge, he tried. Look where that got him, right? And Rupert was a master with the long sword.”
“Well, I have news for you. I know a person who can kill them. A girl from the village. A mysterious person with an even more mysterious scythe. Definitely magical. People say it is Death’s own scythe. And… I have seen the slain, what did you call them, Lectors, with my own eyes.”
The Hermit reflected on this. “Sooo… A magical weapon that kills Lectors, and you assume it will kill the Mistress?”
“I am saying nothing of that sort. I am just saying that I have seen beasts dead, beasts that people claim can’t be killed. So perhaps there is something that can be used against the Mistress, too.”
“Either way, it will be a hell of a fight. Whoever your girl is, I’d suggest she sneaks into Venice without the Assassins noticing, and tries to team up with the Gondoliers. Better to attack the Mistress in a group. And –“, he hesitated for a moment, “even that may not be sufficient. I heard they captured Edmundo.”
“Edmundo, out of all people?” This was bad news. “I thought that Edmundo with his special connection to the ravens would be more than a match for a whole squad of Assassins.”
“My point exactly. No single person should take on the Mistress. And if your girl has a magical weapon, perhaps she should just deliver the death blow. The citizens of Venice would thank her, that’s for sure.”
We continued talking for a while. The Hermit shared a lot of valuable information not only about the Assassins, but also about the political situation in Venice. As the sun neared the horizon, I prepared to take my leave, because I knew how much the Hermit disliked lodging guests in his cave-house. Instead, I planned to cross the bridge into Venice before sunset and stay in the hostel for the night. Under no circumstances would I stay with the crooked innkeeper of the Windmill Tavern.
Of course, life had again different designs. A landslide blocked the road, and I could not reach the bridge. I tried to climb it, which turned out more difficult than I initially thought. The landslide must have been recent, and the loose rocks threatened to slide down the cliffs. Just as I was about to decide how to continue, I heard somebody laugh maliciously. I turned around, trying to keep my balance on the loose rocks. An Assassin was attempting the same thing, trying climb across the landslide to the bridge. As soon as he saw me, he drew his blade. I had no choice: we performed a precarious sword dance atop scree and loose rocks. At least I finally got my wish. When I just barely parried a savage blow, the Assassin gave me a brief opening: I kicked loose a rock with my foot. The rock slammed into the Assassin’s shin and put him off balance. A small nudge with my sword and down he went, screaming. It was my turn for the rancorous laugh.
Unfortunately, this left the Windmill Tavern as my only option. Juan the Innkeeper smirked when he saw me. I could already imagine him choose for me the most flea-ridden, roach-infested bed he had, but this place actually looked much worse than usual. Like a war zone, actually. So the expression in Juan’s face was something else entirely.
“You see?”, he said, “I fought them off. All of them. Oh sure, I had help, that Holy Seal warrior and… you won’t believe it… a fighter girl. But I took on most of them myself. What a mess. You can have a bed if they aren’t all broken. Suit yourself.”
“Where is she? Where did she go?”, I demanded.
“How would I know? Said something about going to Venice, but she’ll need a boat, with the bridge blocked and all. Went that way.” He pointed at the back door.
I dashed after her, fearing that she might run into even more trouble. I had to pass on the Hermit's warning. When I reached the stairs, I heard some commotion far below. I took the stairs three at a time, faster than was safe for the rickety construction. The sounds became clearer, the clash of blade on blade – fighting! When I finally reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw Scarlett, surrounded by dead Assassins. She was just delivering a death blow to the last foe standing, then she whirled around and lunged at me. I was just in time to smash her blade out of the way with my own sword.
“Scarlett! Stop! It’s just me.”
“Oh, I am sorry. I just heard something and though it was another of these guys sneaking up behind me,” she managed to say between gasps of breath.
“What happened here? Are you hurt?”
“I’m okay… I think. What happened – You were right, as always. You warned me of an ambush? Well, they prepared five! The first group waited for us when we came down from the gorge. The second group was at the bridge, they were the ones who caused the landslide. They… they…” her eyes grew misty. She was sobbing when she continued, “They killed Don and Nesto. At the last moment, Don pushed me out of the way. He saved my life, although he could have saved his own.”
“What! Don, Nesto dead? These are bad tidings indeed.”
“And then three of them attacked me in the Windmill. Three more, led by a Dervish Master, were hiding on the upper floor. It was a nasty fight, because I had to take on all three simultaneously. Got a scratch there or two, but I had some healing salve, fortunately. And the fifth ambush, well, right here.”
Scarlett had by now calmed herself and started to methodically search the bodies of the fallen Assassins, taking what she found.
“Look, here is more of the salve.” She held up a small tin can of ointment before she slipped it in her backpack. Then she continued, “But those Assassins are pretty dumb. I hid under the stairs and showed myself to one at a time – so only one at a time came down the stairs and ran right into my blade. The last one, or so I thought, was the Dervish Master. He wasn’t even tough. Or I have become more experienced. But there was one sneaky guy. He stayed upstairs, probably trying to get me unawares. I checked the upper level, though, and found him first. Then I could free the prisoners.”
“Yes, the Assassins took everybody in the tavern prisoner and locked them up in the storage room. Oh, did the Innkeeper boast that he fought them himself? That would be like him. Can’t trust the guy. He was all the time cowering behind Yngvar.”
“So what is your plan now,” I inquired, “go to Venice by boat?”
“It’s not that easy. First, I promised the Innkeeper to get him a carrier pigeon, then I need to help Hengfisk” – she pointed over her shoulder at the boatman – “to get his boat repaired. They smashed his oars. Then, yes, Venice”
“Carrier pigeons? If I may ask, where from?” I had a bad feeling that she might be thinking about the Hermit.
“Oh, the Innkeeper said there was a thief up the next cove who stole his pigeons. He wants me to take a pigeon, by force if necessary.”
“Don’t,” I cautioned her. “I know the man he is talking about. They are not on friendly terms, and if you hurt the man with the pigeons, you’d hurt an innocent. Try to negotiate if you can. You said it yourself, the Innkeeper can’t be trusted.”
“All right, I’ll keep that In mind.”
She went down to the water and started swimming toward a small rock islet with some debris strewn over it. Most probably, she was hoping to find something that might serve as oar. There were some flying beasts on that island, and I hoped she had noticed them. As I continued watching, I realized that she had. She positioned herself near the flock and waited for one of them to attack. At the last moment, she swung her sword and felled the beast. It was only the last of them where she made a painful mistake – the beast sank its claws into her shoulders and whipped her with its tail. She screamed in pain, but then rolled in response and lopped off its head. Good riddance.
I used the time to talk to Yngvar. He was not in the best of moods, having failed, though with no fault of his own, to complete his mission. Still, he was willing to share his comprehensive knowledge of the Assassin’s activity inside the city.
“They are all over the Outer and Inner City, terrorizing the populace, but more importantly, removing citizens who are opposed to the Doge’s regime. It is true that they are headquartered in the Water Gateway, and this will be a problem, because it is the only way into Venice now that the bridge is blocked.”
“Didn’t the Innkeeper send for help?” I contended.
“That old scoundrel! You really believe him? Who knows what his plans are, and if and when the road will be cleared. This could take days, especially with the city in disarray. You could grow old waiting for the repairs. Oh well, not that it matters much to me anyway, I am not going anywhere.”
“So it is the Water Gateway or nothing at all? Scarlett will insist, and this could be dangerous.”
“Scarlett? Oh, her. She is good. And I mean, really good. I showed her some tricks, chaining attacks, and she picked it up real fast. She took on that entire posse of Assassins all by herself, and then finished off those who rappelled down the bridge – you just barely missed the show. But the Water Gateway? This would be suicide.”
“Why do you say that? How many are we talking about? If she goes in there quietly and takes them out one by one, shouldn’d she manage?”
“Nobody really knows, but I heard that the headquarters are manned with about fifteen to twenty of the order at all times. I noticed that some of them were actually wielding hammers. Yes, she might manage to fight them all if she is careful, but to reach Venice she’ll need to face their leader.”
“The so-called Mistress.” This was not a question, it matched with what the Hermit told me.
“The Mistress of Assassins. Yes. I have seen her in a fight. She is lightning fast with the blade, and she can cast spells that throw you to the ground. But what’s real bad is that she can take hits and does not even bleed. A group of warriors from the Order attacked her. She killed more than half of them before they could bring her down. And here is where it gets real strange. When it looked like she was finally dead, she got up again moments later and just walked away.”
“So they didn’t really kill her.” Again, this was not a question, but the logical conclusion.
“Sure they did. One drove his blade through her chest. Nobody could survive that. But the soldier who dealt the blow became delirious and talked in his fever dreams. If it wasn’t for the fever, you could almost think he was lucid. The parts we could understand, he talked about a big green poison snake with five tentacles that could flail and hit you. In between, he screamed with pain. He talked about the snake over and over, as if it had significance. Then he just died.”
Yngvar made a brief pause, as if to look for a way to explain the inexplicable. “You have seen those monsters? Lectors, they call them? If you see them, run. Run for your life. Because you can whack them with your sword, and they will eventually fall. And then, after a few moments they pop up again and continue attacking you. Lectors can’t be killed, either. So there.”
“Ah, but I have seen dead Lectors. Slain, in fact.”
“How? Where? They are crawling all over Venice, and nobody can do a thing about them.”
“Scarlett, again. She carries a mythical weapon, the Moonblade. Two Lectors were blocking the pass to San Pasquale, and she slayed them.”
I have never seen Yngvar at loss for words, but he gaped at me open-mouthed – as far as I could tell under his helmet. I had another idea, but was interrupted when Scarlett arrived and joined us. She turned to me,
“I sorted out that pigeon problem. The Innkeeper lied.” – a sneer from Yngvar – “I paid money for the pigeon, but got it back from the Innkeeper.”
This time, Yngvar could not hold back:” You got money from the Innkeeper?”, he scoffed, ”Normally it’s the other way ‘round. What did you do? Show him your blade?”
“Oh, I am probably not the subtlest of people, but it took more than that. I opened his secret chamber,” a nod to Yngvar, “and started smashing the vases with his valuables in them. He forked over the ducats real quick after that.”
“This does not solve our problem. You wouldn’t be willing to wait a few days, Scarlett, until the road is cleared?”
“No way. You have no idea how important this is. I have to go, and I have to go now.”
I explained the situation to her, what waited for her in the Water Gateway, but she was not deterred. To the contrary –
“So what if this Mistress is the Undead Archon, the target of my mission?”
“The… Undead Archon? Well, that surely fits her.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied, “ what you told me, it has to be somebody closer to the Doge, maybe the Doge himself. But the Mistress is surely part of that cabal.” I pressed on with my idea, “They are holding Edmundo prisoner. I have this from a good source.”
“Edmundo? What did the poor wretch do? They didn’t kill him?”
“I think they are holding him for interrogation. Once they got what they want, they’ll finish him, of course.”
“Who is Edmundo?”, Scarlett asked.
“He is one of the old guild members, knowledgeable necromancer. If you find him, he could teach you some good tricks. His specialty are ravens. You should see it when he summons a murder of ravens to… well, murder somebody.”
“He could join Scarlett in her fight”, suggested Yngvar.
“No, he wouldn’t. He is too old for a real fight, and becoming too slow with the sword. Also, he will be weakened from the interrogation. Still, it would help you if you could find him and free him. Look for closed doors and try to smash them with something big. A hammer perhaps.”
Yngvar had more advice to add: “The Mistress resides high up in the water tower. Maybe, if you get lucky, you can smash the scaffolding with a hammer so she gets trapped up there, and you can avoid the fight entirely. Although… she’d probably jump down. It would certainly not kill her. Oh, and one more thing. There has been a recent infestation of all catacombs with Grippers. Slow, crawling animals, but their pincers can literally rip you apart, and their shell is tough, so tough that you can hardly harm them with your sword.”
“So I’ll use the Moonblade?”, Scarlett asked, half-jokingly.
“No, a hammer would be good. You’d be well-advised to get one from one of the Assassins. Also, try to attack Grippers from the rear so they can’t get to you with the pincers.”
“If you haven’t already,” I added, ”this might be a good time to let Yngvar show you how to wield a hammer the right way. Also, if you have the experience, try to learn the sword moves and sword blocking. If possible, hone your Moonblade moves. Yngvar will teach you. It is very unlikely that you find a teacher in the Water Gateway”
“Can’t I just run from those Grippers?” Scarlett asked.
“Yes, you could. But getting them out of the way could be useful. If you know how to skin beasts, you’ll find an oily sac whose fluid you can use for your lantern – this saves you ducats for lantern oil. Plus, you get experience. Also, I heard they taste great, slow-roasted over an open fire.”
“Scarlett, remember the fever dreams. You may have to deal with a monstrosity, something like a venomous snake with five arms. Whatever it is, think about it. Maybe you can chop off the arms one by one, then attack the snake’s body when the arms can no longer hurt you. I have a feeling that this is the real danger you’ll be facing.”
I think we imparted all of the advice we had. She left us, and after a brief conversation with the fisherman, they climbed into the boat and headed for the city. I had a bad feeling. The venomous snake was too vivid a picture, it had to play the key role here. What that role was, however, I had no idea.
Scarlett would find out, though, but perhaps at the cost of her life.
Continued in Part 3 -- Exploring Venice