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00007. Blackguard

Iofi walks up the dirt path to the cottage with a basket of fresh picked goosefingers from the abandoned orchard.

She stops before a blank wall on the side of the log house and waits, her arms full of fruit basket, as an opening slowly appears. When it is large enough, she steps inside and the portal closes behind her.

Inside, Meadowgloom is sitting, propped up in a chair near the fireplace. He is pale and thin now. His hair is thinner, and white. His large watery eyes dominate his sunken face and his meaty jowls hang on an otherwise gaunt face.

It is traumatic coming back from the dead.

Blackguard and Maddox are sitting with him.

Iofi sets the basket down on the table and retrieves one of the long, yellow, fuzzy pods. She peels it open revealing a bright green flesh speckled with small dark seeds. She scoops out the flesh, plates it with some bread, and brings it to Meadowgloom who accepts with a weak smile.

Maddox shifts uncomfortably in their chair. Iofi looks at him questioningly.

“Nothing,” they say. “I just. I just didn’t expect it to still be this hard. Being back here.”

“You don’t have to keep going down there,” she replies gently, sitting down next to them. “Why don’t you come on back. There’s no reason to torture yourself.”

Maddox looks away, closes their eyes, and nods slightly. Another Maddox snaps into existence by the table with the fruit basket. “I’m recalling everybody,” this new Maddox says, the first Maddox popping out of existence. “I need to have just one person in my head for a while.” They leave the common room, going into one of the bedrooms and closes the door behind them.

Iofi turns and looks at the fireplace. She and Blackguard watch in silence as Meadowgloom pretends to eat.

~ * ~

Bridgers Farm is an abandoned orchard just outside the walls of Kriteach. The goosefinger trees are growing untamed. More and more they are becoming a small, wild forest. Goosefinger fruit lies rotting on the ground in the summer. The birds and small critters can’t eat it fast enough.

The farm used to supply Melior Abbey with goosefinger to make wine and brandy, which the monks sold to support the abbey. And the farm.

When the King Vulture died and the monks all went mad, the abbey was abandoned. And then it was razed to the ground: what the people of Kriteach started in retribution, the monks themselves finished in penitence.

A lot of rubble and a few walls, an intact room here and there, are all that remain of Melior above ground.

Below ground the tunnels remain. The cellars and the catacombs, and a few sealed tombs. One such sealed tomb is rumored to still hold the remains of the 12th abbot of Melior who, according to legend, was entombed alive as punishment for heresy and for plotting against the King Vulture. For centuries the abbot’s remains have rested inside the wall undisturbed until just very recently when he unexpectedly gained a new cellmate, the Hand’s master assassin.

The Melior tunnels connect the abbey, nestled inside the city walls in Scholar’s Gate, to the orchard on the outside. A convenient way to transport fruit, and one of the few ways to bypass the city walls.

The privacy and freedom of movement provided by the tunnels, in addition to the farm’s remoteness and its taboo association with the mad monks of the King Vulture, are why Iofi and Maddox moved their new base of operations here from the compromised Bone & Beak bookstore and cafe.

“I think it’s time,” says Iofi and Blackguard tenses. “The Crown and the Hand are both looking for you, Blackguard. Why?”

Blackguard seems to deflate. Meadowgloom is sleeping in a chair by the fire.

“I didn’t know,” Blackguard starts. “I was – I was moving cargo. I would get a shipment container number, and then my men would go down to the dockyard and load up the crates and carry them out to Chicken Gate. And there’d be somebody there waiting to take the shipment. I didn’t know where it came from or where it went.”

Blackguard looks up at Iofi, wild-eyed. “You have to believe me. Nobody believes me. I just move cargo. The Count thinks I’m behind the whole thing! I don’t know how he found out. But suddenly I had royal funding. The shipments started coming in more frequently, and I had to step away from my other ventures and just … do whatever this is fulltime. Of coure I knew the Hand would find out. They know about everything that comes through the harbor. I knew that being in the pocket of the royals would do me any favors with them. But for a while it seemed I was untouchable. Until … until I found out what we were moving.”

Blackguard’s voice drops to a whisper, he casts his eyes downward and rings his hands. “It was people. People, I tell you.”

He looks up at Iofi, his eyes blazing. “It was Western people. It was Givzi people.”