Five Star Service

storiesbyjurixetwo May 4th, 2018 (edited) 180 Never
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  1. It had been a long day.
  3. Kessel had been up since the crack of dawn, taking deliveries and serving customers and counting the stock. Now the portly man huffed and puffed as he dragged a large sack he'd just hauled up from the stockroom into the small shop. Minerals were so heavy. Thank the Gods this was the last one. Sweat trickled down his neck from beneath his tousled dark hair, and he felt it soaking his starched collar as he heaved the sack into a corner with a grunt of effort.
  5. He sighed in distaste, pulling a red handkerchief from his pocket and mopping his brow with it. One day his employer would see the wisdom of hiring some grunts to do the heavy lifting instead of forcing him to be the shopkeeper-cum-pack mule, but "Profits, profits, profits," he muttered under his breath in a resentful imitation of the miserly proprietor.
  7. As Kessel straightened, his gaze fell upon a broom leaning almost casually against the wall. He scowled. Night had already descended upon Hashan and he wanted nothing more than to shut up shop and go home, but he'd forgotten about sweeping up. The thought of another hour lost to sweeping depressed and infuriated him in equal measure, but if he wanted to make a living, he had no choice. He glared at the broom. If inanimate objects could speak, he was certain it would be mocking him.
  9. No sooner had he trudged over and picked up the broom than the heavy oak door to the shop burst open, crashing into the wall with a loud 'bang!' and bouncing immediately off. A chill, unnatural wind blew strongly into the cosy shop, scattering his neatly stacked lists everywhere and even buffeting him a step back. Oddly, Kessel almost thought he could see tendrils of shadow swirling amongst the winds.
  11. "What the-" Kessel dropped the broom and took a step towards the door, but before he could get to it, the winds converged in the centre of the shop as the wispy shadows darkened. A miniature black tornado whirled into existence, forcing Kessel to narrow his eyes against the howling gales. Bracing himself against a heavy cabinet, he shouted in dismay as the tornado began seizing up lighter objects and hurling them through the air to smash indiscriminately into the walls and door. Candles guttered wildly in the tempest, the wavering light of the sputtering flames slowly losing the battle against the encroaching darkness.
  13. Just as the tornado seemed to peak in ferocity, an armoured Xoran stepped improbably forth from the vortex, and abruptly the howling of the winds ceased as gale and shadow dispersed into nothing. In the sudden silence, Kessel blinked a few times as he hesitantly lowered his hands from his face. His eyes bulged as he stared at the ruined interior of his shop in horror. Colourful minerals spilled out of torn canvas sacks, the broken glass of smashed vials sparkled underfoot and the pages of his neat ledgers were in complete disarray. The dripping remnants of elixirs and salves stained the walls and some chairs looked distinctly the worse for wear after being thrown across the room.
  15. With a start, the stranger's presence registered in his awareness. He turned his mounting outrage onto him, baring his teeth in a near-snarl. "What is the meaning of this?! The shop is closed, can't you read? Look at the damage you've caused - you'll have to-"
  17. Without even looking at him, the Xoran extended a scaled arm and negligently flicked two fingers in Kessel's direction. A breath of black wind rushed towards the furious man and his eyes widened as he felt the noxious vapour force itself through his nose and mouth. Rage transformed into horror as Kessel clutched at his throat; it felt as though someone had mercilessly stuffed it full of cotton, and despite his best efforts he could not force much-needed air into his lungs.
  19. The air beside the Xoran shimmered imperceptibly, and just like that, two more people materialised into being. One was a stout Dwarf with a beard so bushy it obscured nearly his entire body; the other was another Xoran, black-scaled this time, looking about himself warily as one hand rested upon the hilt of his sheathed sword.
  21. "Why this shop, Citrix?" the Dwarf asked casually, paying no mind to Kessel as the aging shopkeeper fell to his knees, feeling abruptly light-headed from the lack of air. A small part of his panicking mind felt incredulous at their complete disregard of his plight. Couldn't they see he was dying?!
  23. The sandy Xoran shrugged. "Guards don't patrol here." His talons crooked near-imperceptibly, and black spots danced at the edges of Kessel's vision as his throat tightened further in that invisible vice. His strength ebbed with every passing second and he slumped onto the wooden floorboards, choking horribly and thrashing on the ground as he fought to draw a breath that wouldn't come.
  25. He was going to die. He was going to die sweeping the floor. This was how it was going to end for him. Kessel Delaqua. Murdered while sweeping out a shop. Achieved nothing in his life. Rest in peace.
  27. Through a haze of pain and terror-fuelled adrenaline, Kessel saw the black Xoran scrutinise him as though he were an interesting specimen. "You know that it'll raise the alarm if he dies, right?" he said to Kessel's would-be murderer. The two figures were beginning to blur - in fact, the whole room was getting very dark. His heart pounded desperately in his ears, slamming against his ribcage in a furious bid for survival.
  29. "Does that matter?" came the dismissive reply, but incredibly - blessedly - the apostate dropped his hand, releasing Kessel from his unseen grip. Black vapour leaked reluctantly from the shopkeeper in a slow stream as air, sweet air, rushed into his lungs. He took great, gulping breaths, coughing and choking as he greedily inhaled life itself. Gradually, his vision began to clear.
  31. "Who-who are you?" he gasped out hoarsely, rubbing his throat as though doing so could erase his near brush with death. His heart was still pounding unnaturally strongly. "What do you want? Please, spare me!"
  33. Abruptly, it was all too much for him. Terror overcame all caution and Kessel scrabbled to his feet, making a lumbering dash for the door. The Dwarf was nearer, however, and deftly kicked it shut with a heavy 'SLAM!' The short man skidded to a halt right in front of him and knew cold despair as he stared pleadingly into the Dwarf's hard eyes. It'd be a miracle if he made it out of this alive. Why, oh why had they chosen his shop today? Why hadn't he just gone home?
  35. "Sorry, shopkeeper. Mercy isn't in our vocabulary," said the one called Citrix. His voice hummed with fell power as he spoke a few words aloud, and Kessel had to stop himself from screaming as a creature from Hell itself coalesced into view. Vermillion skin stretched taut over a muscular humanoid frame, wicked white bone spines protruding menacingly from its back. Pupilless black eyes glared out from within a canid face, and rubbery lips parted to flash multiple rows of needle-like teeth in a rictus grin at Kessel.
  37. A dreaded Baalzadeen. He'd only ever seen drawings, but they were already enough to give him nightmares. Seeing them in the flesh was a thousand times worse.
  39. All thoughts of escape fled his mind, wiped clean by an overpowering panic. "Please! Please!" he begged incoherently, stumbling backwards across the floorboards and nearly backing into the counter in an effort to distance himself as far as possible from the hellspawn.
  41. "It's been a while since I've fed Angus..." Citrix said in a voice full of mock doubt, not stirring from his spot as his Baalzadeen advanced slowly upon the terrified human.
  43. "Hey, Irandir. There're minerals here." The black Xoran was poking about the fallen sacks and boxes, using the toe of his boot to nudge them apart and peering at the rainbow of minerals strewn upon the floor.
  45. Kessel wanted to shout at them, but it came out only as a high-pitched squeak as the Baalzadeen growled threateningly at him. He sank to the floor as his knees abruptly gave way. He was sweating again, not from exertion this time, but from fear. If only he had a sword, he thought desperately as the creature crept closer, a dagger, a club, anything...
  47. Not that it would be much use against the abomination, never mind its master and his friends. The outlook was bleak.
  49. "Minerals?" The Dwarf at the door was suddenly interested, craning his neck to see what the Xoran was doing. "What kind?"
  51. "Looks like all of them," answered the Xoran swordsman, methodically pulling open the mouths of sacks and inspecting their contents. He studied a label tied with twine to the sack's neck. "You sell minerals cheaply here, storekeep. Five gold sovereigns for magnesium?"
  53. "I-I...prices are set by the boss..." Kessel managed weakly, palms pressed up against the counter's hard wood as he tried futilely to back further up. The Baalzadeen was drawing ever closer, stalking him as though a cat hunting a mouse.
  55. "I want to buy some," the swordsman announced, and disbelief distracted Kessel from his bone-deep fear for a moment. He...he wanted to -shop-?
  57. "Honestly, Charion, can't you just -take- them?" his sandy counterpart asked in irritation.
  59. "Look at all that," said Charion, sweeping a hand vaguely over the boxes and sacks in an encompassing gesture. "It's a mess, and we haven't got time. Besides, there's too much for us to carry."
  61. "So what is the answer, delivery? I find that unlikely," Citrix replied with a snort.
  63. It was as though light bloomed in Kessel's mind. Salvation! "I will, I will, of course I will," he gabbled. "I'll - I'll do anything, just spare me, please just get that thing away from me!" Barely a foot away from him, the Baalzadeen snarled and a few droplets of its spittle actually hit Kessel's face and body. He yelled in terror and tried to duck to the side, but the Baalzadeen slammed its hands on either side of him. Escape was impossible; he curled up into a tight, whimpering ball, whispering tearful pleas repeatedly under his breath. The Baalzadeen was so close he could smell the rancid stench of decay on its breath, and he was about a hair's breadth from throwing up.
  65. If he was going to die, let it be quick. Oh, Maya, he didn't want to die.
  67. "Pathetic," said the Dwarf as he stared down at Kessel. "But Charion's right, Citrix. I'm low on curatives too. Make him useful at least."
  69. The Xoran sighed, obviously annoyed. "Fine. Angus!" The name rang with command, and the Baalzadeen's head jerked as if tugged sharply back by a leash around his throat. Growling in deep dissatisfaction, the beast glared malevolently at Kessel before it turned with a heavy scraping of claws on wood, stalking imperiously back to Citrix's side.
  71. The relief Kessel felt was so overwhelming it nearly brought him to tears. "Thank you, thank you thank you thank you-"
  73. "Be silent, or I -will- kill you," the sandy Xoran said succinctly, and Kessel shut up.
  75. Charion was examining the carefully labelled stores. "Write this down, shopkeep. I want five sacks of magnesium, two boxes of potash crystals, five sacks of ferrum, ten pouches of azurite..."
  77. With a fearful glance at the scowling Citrix, Kessel tremulously got to his feet - praying his wobbly legs would hold him upright - and hurried to Charion's side. It was lucky that he always carried quill and parchment with him - one never knew when you might need to write something down. With a shaking hand, he dutifully scribbled down Charion's ever-growing order, his heart sinking further as Irandir's gravelly voice chimed in to add his own demands.
  79. They might have spared his life now, but he'd be as good as dead when his lady proprietor found out Mhaldorians had carted her entire year's stock off - they had to be, for only the dread soldiers of Evil wielded mastery over Baalzadeens - and he'd been the one to help them load the cart.
  81. He was startled from his gloomy thoughts as Charion turned to look at him. "Got all that, shopkeep?"
  83. "Y-yes. I think so," he stammered, caught off guard.
  85. "Don't think. Know," warned Irandir, crossing his arms over his beard.
  87. Kessel swallowed, hastily scanning the list once more. "Yes. I've got it all."
  89. "Silence!" Citrix held up a warning hand, and Kessel froze. Beside the apostate, his Baalzadeen growled deeply, flexing its bone spines in an intimidating display. "The army is coming."
  91. For a brief moment, hope kindled in Kessel's heart at the news. Finally! He'd be saved from this nightmare, the guards would come in and kill these intruders and he'd be free at last-
  93. "Finally," Charion echoed his thoughts, sounding instead as though he were a guest kept waiting too long. Kessel's silent rejoicing faded into dread as the Xoran casually slid a gleaming gold sword from the jewelled scabbard over his hip. "I was beginning to think we'd never see them."
  95. "Get moving, human," Irandir ordered, pointing a thick finger at Kessel. He cringed instinctively. "Load our goods into the stockroom. Then lock yourself in and don't come out. Or die. You choose." With that casual promise, the Dwarf began to pull a few vials off the belt slung around his waist. Kessel recognised the deadly alchemist concoctions swirling within the glass confines - he'd seen them prepared in the laboratories often enough.
  97. The shopkeeper only managed a trembling nod before the growing sounds of shouts and hooves on cobblestone outside spurred him into action. He grabbed boxes under his arms, tied up the open mouths of sacks and dashed to and fro as he hauled and shoved their ordered curatives unceremoniously into the dusty stockroom beneath the shop. It was hard work, made even more difficult by his haste, but the terror of being caught in the impending slaughter ran roughshod over anything else he might have felt. His unwelcome customers ignored him, spreading out and arranging themselves to face the closed door as they awaited the impending clash.
  99. He'd just slammed the stockroom trapdoor down above him and slid the bolt home as he heard the door to the shop burst open again. Kessel tucked himself into a small space between crates and sat hugging his knees, trembling with dread as the chaos of battle erupted in earnest. The muffled sounds of steel clanging on steel and cries of pain and outrage filtered down to him, interspersed with explosions that set the walls to trembling and screams of agony that ended in ominously choked gurgles.
  101. If he'd known shopkeeping would be this dangerous, he'd never have left Manusha for this godsforsaken place...
  103. It seemed an eternity before Kessel abruptly realised that the sounds of conflict had died down. Uncurling himself, he crept towards the door and put his ear to the wood, straining to listen. Was it safe to come out...? A flicker of hope rekindled in his chest. Maybe the Hashani guards had done some good for once and killed all the intruders-
  105. A ferocious roar reverberated through the shop, near-deafening Kessel and sending the stout man scrambling away over the dirt floor in renewed terror, nearly falling in his haste. A split second later, a blast more powerful than all the rest combined shook the very foundations of the shop and flung Kessel unceremoniously into a neat pile of sacks. Boxes fell down and smashed upon the ground, spilling their contents. Sand showered down from the walls and ceiling as the rock shuddered violently, threatening collapse. Intense heat flared from the doorway and the iron lock glowed red-hot for a terrible instant; even with the door taking the brunt of the explosion, Kessel felt it sear the flesh on his face and he curled into a ball once again, screaming in fear and pain, certain he was going to die.
  107. But gradually, gradually, the heat subsided and only an ominous silence reigned. Whimpering, Kessel drew his hands away from his face, sniffling and wiping away his tears. He gingerly poked at the flesh - scalded, but not too badly. A quick check revealed that a stray splinter of wood or something else had stabbed into his back when he fell, and he felt the wound ache as it dribbled blood, but otherwise he wasn't too badly hurt.
  109. Breathing shallowly, he got to his feet clumsily and reached up to touch the bolt, intending to undo it. The red-hot metal seared the skin of his fingertips on contact and he yelped in pain, snatching it back immediately. He shrugged off his jacket hastily and wrapped his right hand in it, the thick wool proving an effective insulator as he struggled to tug the bolt loose. One way or another, he had to get out of here, or the dirty stockroom would be his grave.
  111. Please, please, please...
  113. Finally, the bolt came loose with a rattle and the trapdoor fell open, allowing a faint, yellowish light to stream in. Kessel gaped at the ruined wood on the other side of the trapdoor, blackened and burnt to a crisp by the force of what had obviously been an explosion of great magnitude. The trapdoor was set far back in the shop - if it was damaged to this degree even as far removed as it had been from the main store, he shuddered to think what the storefront looked like...
  115. Terror paralysed Kessel, yet he knew that he couldn't stay where he was. What if they returned to finish the job? Taking a shuddering breath, he climbed as noiselessly as he could out of the trapdoor, barely muffling a grunt of effort as he hauled himself out - he was too old for much more of this - and looked around.
  117. The sight that greeted him froze him in his tracks. The faint yellow light streaming into the stockroom came from dying flames licking hungrily over ruined timbers, now barely more than large logs of charcoal. Bodies, all clad in Hashani blue, lay dismembered and strewn everywhere, the warm wood floor stained with their dark blood. Any stock he hadn't moved into the stockroom in time was thoroughly ruined - ripped open and destroyed, their contents scattered haphazardly upon the ground or seeping into the timber.
  119. Speechless with horror, Kessel forced himself to move forward, determinedly not looking at anything vaguely resembling a body. He picked his way carefully over rubble and splintered wood, trying to make his way to the collapsed storefront and the freedom he so desperately longed for.
  121. As he reached the centre of the shop, he noticed a huge metal tank sitting in the midst of the destruction. The ring of charred wood around it suggested that it had been the source of the explosion. Something twinkled within it, catching Kessel's eye as he tried to edge past. He stopped, curious despite himself, and crept forward to peer inside.
  123. His eyes widened. Golden sovereigns filled the tank to the brim, gleaming in the dying firelight. Reaching in with a trembling hand, he picked one up and cautiously bit it to test its authenticity - the unyielding hardness beneath his teeth told him that the wealth was real. Avarice won out over sensibility, and for a moment Kessel forgot himself as he gleefully shovelled clinking sovereigns into his pouch - he'd suffered so much today, this was nothing more than his just reward, and those Mhaldorians were idiots if they thought he would ever deliver -
  125. Suddenly, pain lanced through his palm as he dragged it over something sharp in his careless haste to scoop the gold out, and he cried out in agony as he snatched his hand back. A long slice split his palm open from below his middle finger to his wrist, oozing droplets of crimson blood. Cursing indiscriminately and cradling his bleeding hand, Kessel looked around and spied an overturned wooden bowl on the floor next to him. He picked it up and used it to push the sovereigns around in the tank, trying to see what he'd hurt himself on.
  127. A chance scrape revealed the cold glint of steel buried beneath the gold. Kessel dropped the bowl and brushed the gold coins off more carefully, unearthing half of a long steel broadsword. Firelight rippled over the polished metal, and blood stained its razor edge red from where he'd cut himself. With his good hand, Kessel took the weapon by the hilt and started to pull it up - then dropped it again with a cry of horror as the motion dislodged more gold sovereigns, revealing a severed head impaled into the end of the sword.
  129. Dull blue eyes stared sightlessly up at the shocked shopkeeper, the head's mouth frozen in a silent scream of agony. Blood flowed from the neck down onto the blade, vivid red outlining a single sentence crudely engraved into the metal:
  131. "Fulfill your promise and be rewarded, or cross us and mirror his fate."
  133. With a final, anguished scream, Kessel burst through the doorway, running down Serpentis Boulevard as fast as his feet could carry him. If anyone had seen the disheveled shopkeeper with terror-crazed eyes tearing past, blood streaming from his hand and his clothes black with dirt, they might have thought him insane; but nobody emerged to investigate and offer help, not even a guard.
  135. Perhaps there was simply no one left.
  137. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  139. "Begging your pardon, Lord Marshal."
  141. The sandy Xoran turned, his green gaze falling upon the slave who remained bowed before him. "Yes?"
  143. "A delivery arrived for you. It's quite...substantial. Do you wish for it to be sent anywhere?"
  145. Citrix strode to the doorway of the gloomy guardhouse and peered outside. Two sturdy mules waited within the shafts of a large cart, which was piled to the brim with chests and barrels of all shapes and sizes. At Citrix's raised brow, the slave hurried forward and opened a few chests, displaying the fine, coloured grains of precious minerals stored within.
  147. "Hey, that shopkeeper in Hashan delivered. I knew he'd come through." Charion joined him at the doorway, an approving smirk on his face.
  149. "It's a wonder what the fear of death does to a person's obedience," remarked Irandir as he strolled up to them. "Truth Two, and such. Excuse me, I need to start replenishing my stock."
  151. "Waste of a severed head, if you ask me. I like eating those," grumbled Charion, already striding to the cart. He jumped up onto the cart and picked up a chest at random, hefting the weight experimentally in his hands. "Heavy. I think he gave us extra."
  153. "We decapitate corpses every day. Consider it a tip for good service." Citrix allowed himself a small smirk as he plunged one hand into a chest full of potash crystals, allowing them to trickle through his scaled fingers.
  155. "Yes, I do like that shop after all," Charion mused. "Most accommodating shopkeeper."
  157. "Top marks for service. Maybe we should become repeat customers."
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