by Ben Hodges

Although I hated to admit it, I was getting overconfident. It was a risk in any profession, and the greatest cause of death in professional thieves. It led to thinking you were invulnerable, that you couldn’t make any mistakes, that you were somehow better than the guards you were facing.

My last job forced that point to my attention in a rather graphic manner. It was only thanks to the healing potion I carried with me that I’d managed to limp away from the scene of the crime, an arrow still protruding from my leg and deep sword wounds to my torso. The potion’s magical and herbal properties had stopped the bleeding and numbed the pain enough for me to make my escape, dropping down into the sewers at the risk of infection to avoid the armed posse of guards now after me.

It had started off quite well, the entry to the mansion had been textbook, if anyone had ever written a textbook of thievery at any rate, and I’d easily avoided the guards patrolling the area to make my way to the owner’s living quarters. It had all gone wrong there, I had been sneaking up on a guard over a tiled floor when they heard me. I had had far too much confidence in my abilities and they’d heard the instant I made a mistake. I’d managed to take them down before they could string their bow, getting a lucky blow in with my blackjack while they were calling for help but had then had to flee before the others found me.

Unfortunately, for me anyway although I’d imagine the owner of the house was quite elated, I’d been spotted making my escape, an archer putting a shaft clean through my left thigh and sending me tumbling off the wall. Landing awkwardly I stumbled into a patrol of bluecoats who recognised me as up to no good, I suspect that the arrow embedded in my flesh, the all black outfit and the large clinking pack aided them in this sterling work, and tried to finish me off. I managed to trigger a gas mine and hold my breath for long enough to see them collapse unconscious. I’d pulled the health potion from my harness and drained it, flinging the vial at the head of one of the bodies before exiting post haste.

That was when the main party of guards found me again, attempting to sneak away from the patrol but still leaving a gradually diminishing trail of blood behind me. I swarmed up a ladder, smashing the first of my pursuers over the head with my hammer, not killing them due to their helmet but by this point I was hardly bothered by that, and sending them toppling on top of their fellows. By the time they’d got untangled from the unconscious limbs I had finally made my escape, dropping from the far side of the wall and entering a handy sewer grate. I recognised the sign deeply engraved into the wall by the ladder as being part of the city sewer worker’s map and was soon home.

I pulled the arrow from my leg, slapped large amounts of bandages on both my leg and my chest and drank another healing potion before falling face first onto the bed, unconscious. When I awoke the wounds had vanished, leaving behind them some impressive scars and a resulting stiffness in my knee. I’d barely grabbed enough from the heist to cover the cost of the potions, and that was including the full purses I’d lifted from the bluecoats before leaving them.

The incident happened a week or two after this, I had been unable to return to my old methods as yet, the stiffness in my knee preventing any major acrobatics, and had gone back to the mainstay of thieves everywhere, purse snatching. Mostly I had been taking the purses from normal citizens, less risky that way, with a little bit of house breaking and robbery on the side, but strictly no assault. I disagreed with the habit of most thieves of knocking out the poorer targets, not that there was anything particularly virtuous about them, more that it was unnecessary as it was simple enough to remove any valuables without resorting to violence. I made a fairly disconcerting discovery on one of these trips, looking through the pouch I’d managed to lift from a bluecoat the night before. It was a point of honour with me to try and strip the valuables from any patrol I happened across while still remaining unseen and I had managed this every time so far.

In this particular pouch there was a folded piece of parchment, with an unflattering picture of me on it, more a caricature than a portrait but still recognisable. No name on it, thankfully, though the reward sum at the bottom was truly flattering. While this wasn’t the first time there had been a price on my head, it was the first time I’d come to the attention of the bluecoats. Obviously the patrol that I’d knocked out and the guards who’d come across them had compared notes. The amount on the parchment was such that the noble whose house I had been in the process of escaping from had clearly taken my success personally. I’d have to do something about this, and do it soon before the loyalty of my neighbours was seriously compromised.

I soon came to the conclusion that the best way to be sure that I was safe was to kill the noble, his guards and every bluecoat who’d ever seen the parchment. This was not quite what I had in mind however, and I soon came up with a more morally acceptable method. If I could slip into Shoalsgate then, theoretically at least and so long as I could avoid being caught, I could destroy any records of myself, and possibly make a small profit in the doing of it.

I reviewed what I knew of Shoalsgate and realised it wasn’t much at all. I needed inside information, and found a way to get it. I met the fellow in ‘The Hook’, dressed in a shadowy cloak and moving furtively he stood out like a sore thumb, making it easy for me to spot him. The pouch of gold in front of me vanished as he sat down, to be replaced by a piece of paper. I opened it, glancing over its contents before nodding to the ex-officer.

He’d been kicked out of the bluecoats for accepting bribes on the face of it, but actually for the principal sin of being caught doing so. They’d had to come down hard on internal crime to keep the trust of the nobles, the ones who contributed most towards their wages, which merely meant that the officers and men had been forced to find more covert ways of garnishing their pay-packets.

The price of the information wasn’t too high, as I’d promised my informer that I would remove all information regarding him from the records as well, making it less likely that he would be asked about how someone had known where the guards and devices were. As well as meaning that he could quite happily apply to another station without any prior records, or problems so long as he avoided anyone he’d known before.

I returned to my apartment and gathered my equipment, preparing for the trip out, but first I had another task to perform…

On my way to Shoalsgate I happened to pass by the homes of some rather rich and influential, if not particularly upstanding, citizens. Continuing on my way, now with the promise of a substantial reward for the destruction of some trifling information regarding the activities of these citizens, I made my way to my destination.

It was alleged that someone had broken into the station before now, though only in the circles I dealt with as no evidence had ever been discovered or left of this. Officially the station was sacrosanct, no thieves who weren’t under arrest had ever entered it, or at least they’d never left to tell the tale. I was planning to do this a little differently, as it didn’t really matter if they knew that someone had been inside just so long as they didn’t know it had been me.

According to the map, and the information I’d noted down, the hall of records was in the centre of the building, requiring me to pass through guarded halls and barracks, all the while attempting to avoid the new mechanist heads that had been installed. The information I’d got from my informer was a little out of date, as he’d been kicked out in the middle of the building works but it was the best I was going to get, given that no criminal had ever left the place alive.

I still held a grudge against the bluecoats and maybe my plan to enter the place held the possibility of more violence than one would traditionally expect from me, but if all went well then I shouldn’t take too much of a risk.

I hung around the main gates for a while until it got dark, most of the men left the offices and moved onto the streets to catch any thieves who might have started work. As expected, given that most of them had been recruited from the mixture of petty thugs and mercenaries that make up most noblemen’s guards they tended to rattle the doorknobs of any shops or bars they passed, in case they could pick up something valuable before informing the owner.

To the evident surprise of one pair of patrolmen the first door they tried, leading into a rather pleasant little bar, was actually unlocked. They slapped each other on the back, pleased with their discovery and quickly entered, pulling the door shut behind them before anyone else could see what had happened and come to share in their good fortune. Sadly for them their jubilant mood was soon shattered by the application of a pair of feet to the tops of their helmets, driving their chins down onto the table someone had carelessly left in front of the door and rendering them both unconscious. I hauled myself back up onto the shelf above the door and regarded the scene, staying out of range in case of any movement from the bodies.

Nothing ensued and no one seemed to have heard the brief scuffle so I dropped to ground level and checked the vital signs of the thugs. Thankfully I’d not killed either of them although they had lost a good deal of teeth and one seemed to have a broken jaw. Shrugging I collected the pouches from their belts and stripped the uniform from the bleeding one. Putting it on over my own clothes I peeked from the bar door, seeing the coast was clear I proceeded to stagger towards Shoalsgate. I hammered on the doors, making sure that the blood was plainly in view through the view-slit and that my new helmet completely obscured my face.

The doors swung open and I collapsed forward onto the floor, the desk officer grabbing my arm and leading me over to the nearest bench. The few men left inside crowded around the ‘wounded’ man, most running out when I told them that my patrol had been ambushed in the main square by a gang of thugs. Only two were left and one of them was heading to the barracks to sound an alarm when I suddenly cried out and toppled off the bench, causing him to rush back and see what was going on. He seemed very surprised when the hammer I pulled from underneath my tunic smacked him in the forehead, although not as surprised as the desk sergeant when I took him out with the backswing as I straightened up.

I dragged the bodies behind the desk and stuffed them out of sight in preparation for the next part of the plan. I was now inside Shoalsgate, without any conscious bluecoats around, and had just tripped over the main alarm switch. As I stowed the bodies away I noticed the plate in front of me, and pressed the switches to turn off both the turrets and the heads. I removed the tunic and helmet quickly and pushed them under the desk too, the uniform would give me a chance of being thought just another guard but would remove any chance of sneaking into the highly guarded areas.

Having disarmed their main security I then headed deeper into the station, slipping into the main office area without being spotted. I decided to ransack the desks to begin with, just to make sure that I didn’t miss anything about myself in my haste. I found quite a decent amount of coinage and equipment in the drawers, water arrows, explosive mines and even a gas arrow. I collected together all the papers on the desks, better to be safe than sorry I always say. Well, at least I always say it now, whenever I feel a twinge in my leg from the arrow that is. I filled a bin with the papers and planted a mine along with a rudimentary timer to set it off in about twenty minutes. Hopefully I would be out of there by then, as the main square wasn’t more than ten minutes walk away from Shoalsgate and once the bluecoats realised they’d been duped they would return, undoubtedly in an angry mood. I didn’t really wish to be caught in a smoke-filled room surrounded by guards if I could possibly avoid it, and felt that the other side of the building, or preferably the city would be far more pleasant surroundings.

I left the room and headed left, planning to raid the armoury for equipment to reduce the drain on my own resources. I walked along the corridor carefully, timing my steps with the patrolman I could hear down the adjoining route as I drew my blackjack. As he passed me I swung in behind him and cracked him across the back of the neck with the weapon, sending him collapsing to the ground. I hoisted his heavy body to my shoulder and walked on, aiming for the target range where I figured a body would stay undetected longest. Remembering an interesting rumour that I’d been passed by the ex-officer I tried my hand at the targets, far left, aim for the top right hand corner of the bulls eye. I drew my crossbow and blasted a pellet at the target, landing with a distinct clanging noise, and causing a hidden metal door in the wall to swing open. I dropped the body behind the wooden wall where it would not be obvious to the casual observer and entered the armoury proper. The shelves were soon emptied, the arrows finding places in my quiver and the mines slotted carefully into my harness in readiness for the fireworks to come.

I dragged the tunic off the body next door and muffled the head of my hammer with it, smashing the door mechanism to pieces so that no one could enter. The odds were that they’d simply put it down to mechanical failure if the lock failed to respond whereas if they entered and found that the cupboard was bare, then they’d know that someone had been here.

I checked my map again, trying to figure out the best way to do this. The main hall of records would have to be destroyed, or I might as well not have bothered coming, but there was a chance that I was under investigation and that there would be more info in the offices. While I’d effectively destroyed the main office, or would have done so as soon as my trap went off, there were yet more offices, these populated by the officers and set away from the common men.

The next floor up was now my objective, though I needed an alternative route up really as the staircases were guarded by watchers, thankfully human now as the mechanical heads had been turned off. I headed past the barracks, checking the lockers as I passed to make sure that there was no contraband inside. I confiscated the items I came across, shaking my head and tut-tutting sadly as I did so, before creeping out into the main quadrangle that the building was constructed around. A rope arrow was just the job in this case, and was soon lodged firmly in the beams by an office window. I swarmed up the rope suspended from the arrow, all the time thanking the genius who’d came up with the idea of enchanting an arrowhead so it would not release from its target until grasped firmly by the same hand that had fired it. I perched on the windowsill and recovered the arrow, then made my entrance.

I slid the head of a lockpick between the panes, lifting the latch without any trouble and swinging the window open. Dropping onto the desktop inside I quickly shut the window before anyone noticed that it was open and came to check on what was happening. I rifled through the papers on the desk, thankfully nothing about me though there was a rather interesting piece of paper containing details of the security in most of the noble’s houses in the city. It would seem that the mechanists, a minor breakaway faction of the Hammerite order, had been busy installing their security devices all over the place. I folded the paper and put it in my pack, it might come in handy someday for an enterprising thief.

I cracked open the door and peered into the corridor, noting the patrollers and, with a start, the mechanical head facing directly towards me. I jerked backwards involuntarily before remembering that I’d disabled their security and looked at it again, this time noticing the absence of lights on it and its general lack of movement. Drawing my blackjack I waited for the nearest patroller to come past the door, listening carefully to the sound of their footsteps and swinging out in perfect time to smack him on the back of the head as he passed me by. I grabbed his belt and dragged him inside swiftly. I removed his purse and keys and sat him in a corner, leaning his head against the table rather than letting it drop onto his shoulder, after all I’d already knocked him out and it’d be nasty to give him a crick in his neck when he awoke too.

I moved onwards, checking each office as I passed, and gathering papers as I went. By the time I reached the end of the corridor I had an armful of papers and decided to destroy them here, as it’d be too risky to carry them any further. I opened the next door I came too, and grinned as my eyes fell upon the dining room and the magnificent fireplace in the opposite wall. I carefully placed the papers in the grate, weighing them down with logs so that none would flutter out and remain readable, before admiring the taste of the officers. Solid gold candlesticks, silver cutlery and even fine wines on the table, obviously they were still garnishing their wages even though it was subtler now. Clinking now, I moved off to the hall of records, believing I should have no problem with entry since the automatic devices had been turned off.

I swore quietly as this reminded me of the bluecoats I’d sent off to the main square should have arrived just now, probably having taken along every patrol that they came across on the way. I shrugged and carried on, maybe a tad more swiftly than before though not rushing. It would be easy enough to tell when they returned in a bad mood, and I should have enough warning to escape before they realised what was going on.

Jogging quietly along the carpet in the middle of the floor I followed the map straight to my target, and the small army waiting by the door. I flattened myself against the wall and wondered why so many would be there. Either they were changing the guards, or the sheriff was not quite as hapless as suspected and had heard the rumours of the previous penetration and decided to make sure it did not occur again. I leaned slowly around the corner, and checked out the bluecoats with more detail this time. Thankfully it seemed, from their tired disposition and general tone, that half of them were just about to leave for home. This was thankful until I realised that there would be no one at the reception to wave goodbye to and that there was a fairly good chance that my diversion would be wasted.

I pulled my bow from my pack and quickly strung a gas arrow before stepping out into the hall. I coughed loudly, causing heads to turn in my direction, smiled at them politely and then waited for them to crowd together to get to me. As they tried to pass through the doorway, one designed to accommodate two people uncomfortably and not really suitable for six, they bunched up briefly, making the perfect target for the shot. I released the bowstring and the shaft flew straight at the forehead of the foremost bluecoat, I could see his eyes cross as he watched it get closer before suddenly smacking him between the eyes and shattering. The mob fell to the ground silently in a tangled heap of limbs and weapons as the gas took effect.

I slotted my bow back and walked forward carefully, drawing my hammer as I did so. Taking sensible precautions, after all one of them might have been holding his breath, I took a careful headcount of the bodies, using the hammerhead as a pointer. Several dented helmets later I was satisfied it was safe to proceed and strode confidently over the new rug. I didn’t have the time or inclination to move them out of sight and so merely trusted to my luck that they wouldn’t be discovered until later.

The door was locked, but soon swung open upon the judicious application of my lockpicks, allowing me access to the halls beyond. I stepped through the doorway, then stepped back and swore. I hadn’t realised that the records had got to such a substantial number since the beginning of the bluecoats. Before my eyes were several large rooms, floor to ceiling with books and folders containing information on virtually every crime committed since the founding of the city watch. The problem though was in the heavily locked metal doors before me, almost certainly alarmed and looking to take some time to pick.

I would have to wait for the alarms to sound before I could open these doors, as hopefully everyone would be far too distracted by the fires to pay attention to any other alarms. I spent the time profitably, setting a mine in each room complete with more basic timers. I had spent a rather large amount of money on these timers, fire crystals surrounded by wooden boxes with a button on the side. The button would push a needle inside the box, cracking the glass and setting off the fire spell. Once set off it would slowly burn through the resistant wood due to the fuel packed around it, both for certainty of working and as a cushion to prevent accidental triggering from rough handling. These could be used for arson, or to set off explosives due to the heat. I packed papers around the mine and box, making sure that they would ignite well and send burning embers fluttering about the room once the mine set off.

Checking the books one title caught my eye, ‘A Study of Secret Passages in Defended Buildings’ and I took hold of it as it might come in useful in my line of work. It tipped forward on the shelf, hinged at the base as the bottom two shelves swung open to reveal a hidden passageway. I checked the passage out briefly, noting as it ended at the cells and deciding to use this route to leave by rather than the main doors. Grinning I walked back to the metal doors, walking straight into the armed and ready bluecoat as I turned the corner. I swore loudly and jumped back as they swung their sword at me before taking to my heels. I skidded back into the passage room and slid across the polished floor straight into the hole. Slamming the panel shut behind me I crouched behind the door, listening to the footsteps heading straight towards me. I couldn’t leave him conscious in the hall or my work in setting the arson would be in vain. Holding my hammer I sat back against the wall, putting my feet against the door before waiting for the footsteps to cease. They stopped accordingly and I counted silently, ‘one, two, three!’ before straightening my legs to their full extent and sending the panel smashing into the face of the guard.

They reeled backwards, blood pouring down their face from their broken nose and smashed teeth, as I launched myself into the room. I brushed aside the weak sword stroke and brought my hammer around in a perfect semi-circle before it connected solidly with the side of their helmet. They collapsed as though their legs had been cut out from under them and I hung the hammer back at my side before cradling their head and gently dripping some healing potion into their mouth. I removed his helmet as he shook his head, the blood slowing to a drip and his eyes focussing again.

‘Are you alright?’ I asked with some concern.

‘What, er, yeah…’ was as far as he got before his eyes widened and realised who it was that was leaning over him.

I sighed in relief before changing my grip on his head slightly and bouncing his skull off the floorboards with a rather hollow sounding thud. I would have hated to kill him by accident because of my own mistake in assuming no one would be around. I hauled his now healthy, if unconscious, body to lie with the others at the entrance before returning to the metal doors, and a change of plan. I armed two explosive mines and skidded them between the narrow gap between the floor and door, sending them smacking into the far wall and exploding noisily.

Jogging off I headed down to the secret passage and the cells, reckoning I’d made my escape that way. As I dropped down the ladder alarms started sounding. Obviously someone here was actually awake, and had noticed the explosions, flames and smokes pouring out of the offices. The explosions from the hall of records should mean that the mob I’d left napping would be found before they were in any danger, and the general lack of any flammable materials around them would help too.

Bluecoats were rushing out from the barracks and cell area to try to stop the fire spreading, leaving a clear route from the cells straight to the well in the centre of the square. If I climbed down the well I could enter the passage that led to the sewers, only requiring the removal of a metal grating to access. On a whim I decided to explore the area briefly, to see if anyone I knew was being held as well as if there were any valuables being stored for their owners to claim later.

I entered the holding area and checked the cells for anyone I recognised. It seemed that the current crop of criminals was fairly small, consisting of petty thieves, ladies of the night and runaway servants only, so I released them and told them to follow me. I made my way swiftly over to the well and sent them down it, giving a fire arrow to the first one to blow the grate off with before heading back to the station. I still had one last place to visit. The sheriff’s office which was inconveniently located off the main desk area.

Thankfully nobody was around yet as they were still trying to prevent the building burning down and even the sheriff had left to co-ordinate the efforts. As I crossed the floor I suddenly heard my diversion for the returning officers being set off. Two turrets, normally controlled by mechanist devices that seemed capable of recognising the bluecoats and leaving them alone, although they fired on anyone else who came too close, guarded the main gates. I had turned off the controls, and instead switched them to automatic firing at anything that came too close; rats, dogs, bluecoats…

As the explosions rose into the air I could hear the startled yells of the guards, and the screams as shrapnel from the bombs hit them. The guns tended to be fairly inaccurate and I felt that it gave enough of a chance of escape for the bluecoats. The injuries would merely serve to remind them to beware overconfidence themselves, and hopefully should stop them recommending mechanist devices to any nobleman who asked. As the footsteps receded swiftly I continued along my path, bashing the sheriff’s door off its hinges with my hammer and grabbing the purse, keys and icons that lay upon the desk before tossing a fire arrow at the cabinet in the corner.

Running now, to avoid the bluecoats who would have heard the explosions coming from outside the main gates, I sprinted to the well, grabbing hold of the rope and lowering myself down to the tunnel quickly. The main party had already passed on, cleaning the lichen and grime off the floor with their clothes and allowing me to make it to the main sewers whilst still remaining clean. I dropped out of the pipe and turned to see the group still waiting there, uncertain of what to do now. Pointing towards the main city I sent them to the third grate along which should bring them out in the main square and safely away from any patrols.

As I headed back towards my lodgings via the sewers I decided to make a short detour on my way. As I halted briefly by a drain I set some mines which exploded and blocking the main sewer with rubble. I grinned and decided that I must pass by that way later this week as I’d love to see the expression on the face of the noble who’d started all this mess once he realised he was being flooded out by the combined sewage of most of the city.

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