Emil surveyed the smoldering ruins and felt the beginnings of a headache. He had grown up in this part of the city, back when the name Merrytown made sense. Unfortunately, the name had become increasingly ironic in recent years. Filth covered the cobblestones, and more windows glared darkly from behind boards than not. Vandals and vermin had driven all merriment from these streets. Emil could still remember he and the other Merrytown children playing kick-stick in the alleyways, could still hear the baker Jonik laugh as he made smallcakes.
Someone coughed beside him, and Emil blinked. He had forgotten Vatek for a moment. It was easy to do. The small, bony man peered up at him and squinted through a monocle. He looked like a boy dressed up as a soldier for the Festival of Masks. The monocle was a trend among young men that Emil found ridiculous. Only the symbol of a clenched fist within a sun, etched onto his ill-fitting breastplate, marked him as Wojek.
“My apologies, Patrolman Vatek,” Emil said, recovering himself. “You were saying?”
Vatek straightened with self-importance. “Sir. I was saying that the locals I questioned inform me that this was once a tavern.”
“The Titan’s Keg, yes.”
Vatek started. “You know it, sir?”
“I knew it once.” Emil waved the question away. “What happened? Any witnesses?”
Vatek scowled. “Anyone who should have seen anything isn’t talking. We have only the one survivor, sir. He’s waiting to tell you his story. He wanted to talk to the captain, sir. He was very specific.”
“Hard to imagine someone surviving this,” Emil nodded to the ash and blackened foundation. One outer wall stood like an obelisk against the morning sky. The remaining structure reached no higher than Emil’s knee, a field of black rock lazily breathing smoke. The two-story tavern had clearly burned for hours before anyone thought to call a Wojek patrol. Or perhaps it took hours to find a patrolman, since patrols tended to avoid Merrytown these days. Whatever the case, even looking at the remains of the once-proud Titan’s Keg made Emil’s head ache. He passed a hand through his gray hair. “Yet if he’s anxious to tell me his tale, let’s not keep the man waiting.”
Emil swatted several insects away and looked up. Way up. His headache had increased threefold.
“I’m going to guess you were the bouncer here?”
A figure looked down on him and rumbled a throaty chuckle. Emil assumed it was a troll, but it was difficult to tell since he wore a helmet that covered his entire head except two vertical slits for the eyes and three vertical slits for the mouth. Enormous horns curved downward from the sides of the helmet. Spikes, skulls, plates, and leather wrapped the rest of his body, making him look like a battlefield come to life. A club, nearly Emil’s full height, dangled from the hulking figure’s belt.
“I guess you could say that,” the troll rasped. “At least, they always bounced when I threw ‘em out.”
Emil’s eyes watered from the thing’s smell, a mixture of spoiled meat and sweat, worse than any troll he’d met. He forced a smile. “You have a name, friend?”
“It ain’t ‘Friend,’ that’s for sure.” Two gigantic arms crossed over a gigantic chest. “Call me Orik.”
“Okay,” Emil was still smiling, “You want to tell me how this tavern ended up burning to the ground, Orik? Even better if you can explain who’s responsible.”
“Sure. I’ll tell you what happened.”
“You want to take a seat?” Emil offered.
“Right then.” Emil clasped his hands behind his back and spread his feet. It was a position he could keep for hours, even in a chain-mail shirt. “Ready whenever you are. Start from the beginning.”
Orik scratched at his shoulder absently. “The beginning. Okay. It was our regular card night at the Keg. A few couldn’t make it, but most of the regulars were there. Buncha goblins, mostly. It’s hard to keep their names straight, but everybody knows Yeep ‘cause he’s crazy. Or was, I guess. Yeep’s brother Ruk was there, and Bart. Couple others, cousins of Yeep. Other’n that, I’d say there was maybe two or three other fellas. Some imp I’d never met. Piggy, who’s been comin’ for cards ever since he escaped the grave, and that guildmage guy Uzric. The bartender, Belko, was there, of course.”
“Wait,” Emil interrupted. “Guildmage? Playing cards with goblins, imps, and a...zombie, was it?”
“Rakdos,” Patrolman Vatek cursed behind him.
The troll guffawed. “Yeah, Rakdos. Scared, little man? Or maybe you think you’re the only guild worth--”
“That’s enough,” Emil said. His headache threatened to blot out the sunlight. He wanted nothing more than to curl into his cot. Instead, he said, “Please continue, Orik.”
“So yeah, the fellas were playin’ cards, and this group of strangers come in, all elves, and lookin’ like they been travelin’. Leader orders drinks for ‘em all, and they sit in a corner, all huddled and whisperin’. Since I was near the door, I heard ‘em say something about a quest of some sort, but mostly I was watchin’ the card game.
“Not the fellas, though. Strangers don’t usually come into the Keg. I guess the guys were tryin’ to show off or something. They got into it, you know? Got louder. Ruk jumped up and started playin’ his finger flute. Some cousin of his pulled out skins from nowhere and starts poundin' 'em along to the flute. Yeep ordered a round of Belko’s best bumbat. Everybody was havin’ a good time.”
Orik chuckled again. Emil heard Vatek’s blade slide slowly from its scabbard. His own hand moved deliberately to his belt near his sword. The troll was clearly lost in his tale, however, oblivious to them all and remembering the evening’s events.
"Crazy Yeep. He’s the one that took it all to a whole new level. He stands on the table, holdin’ his mug up, and says that he’s tired of losin’ at cards. He’s gonna will himself to victory, he says. Right there and then he said that if he lost the next hand he’d scoop out his own eye with a spoon."
“So of course the loony little speck lost. It came down to him and Uzric, and Uzric lays his last card down all dramatic. When we saw it was a cup, we all bust out cheering. Yeep tried divin’ under the table, but the fellas wrestled him into his chair and tied him there with some barbed chain one of ‘em was wearin’. Uzric was the one that did the eye scoopin’, but it was the imp that fed it to Yeep. We was all laughin’ along with the show, the flute and the drums still playin’. Pretty soon everybody’s wagerin’ parts of their bodies and tossin’ ‘em into a bag for later. Honestly, it was one of the best card nights we’ve had at the Keg.
“Anyways, the fire was those bloody strangers’ fault. We was all havin’ a great time partyin’, and suddenly the stinkin’ elves’ve got their weapons out and make like they’re tryin’ to leave. Like, without payin’ or even thankin’ us for the show. At first we thought they were jokin’ and just tryin’ to get in on the fun, y’know? We thought them loppin’ Piggy’s head off was a joke, fr’instance, especially since he could just put it back on and keep drinkin’. Then somebody skewers the skins player and starts screamin’ something about ‘holy this’ or ‘in the name of that’ and we had to do somethin’.”
“You killed them?” Emil asked carefully. He wanted to keep Orik talking while his men flanked the troll. Vatek took his hint after a jerk of his chin, moving quietly, and the rest followed suit.
Orik was considering his question. “The fellas killed one of ‘em, mostly just ‘cause he was squirmin’ around so bad while they tied the others up. Them other elves, they didn’t die for hours, though. The imp had these tiny little darts, see, and we’d bet a keg of bumbat before we were done throwin' 'em. Then one of the goblins said how good elf hair tastes in applesauce, so we shaved their heads and made dessert. Turns out he was right. I don’t know what those elves use to wash their hair, but it’s tastier than most other hair you’ll find.
"Anyways, Piggy had some game he called ‘dentist’ that got the elves screamin,’ and the sound went so well with the flute that we tried makin’ a little band out of it. Amazin’ how much screamin’ sounds like music when you’ve had a few drinks, am I right?"
“So there we were, eatin’ hairsauce, throwin’ darts, watchin’ Piggy collect teeth, and workin’ on our song when Yeep just up and started yankin’ their heads off. Freakiest thing I ever saw, a goblin strong enough to do that. We all gave him a really hard time about it, too, but like I said, Yeep’s crazy. It really spoiled the party mood, though, you know? Now we only had the finger flute for music, the bumbat had mostly run out, and half the cards got torn up in the fight with the strangers. Uzric was about the only one happy, ‘cause he was able to work on his cloak of flesh. The rest of us, well, we was bored as death.
“Yeep musta felt guilty about the whole thing once he got his wits about him, ‘cause all of a sudden he starts juggling the heads. None of us knew the little twit could juggle, but there he was, keepin’ five in the air at the same time. Pretty soon someone picks up the skins, the flute gets goin’ again, and Piggy goes to get another keg from Belko’s private stash. We partied like that for a good part of the night, even playin’ some games with the body pieces we had put in the bag earlier.”
A young patrolman near Emil coughed, close to retching, but Orik seemed not to notice. Indeed, he had paused in his storytelling to look at Emil, as if his tale had concluded. The patrolmen, meanwhile, had mostly completed a circle around the troll. That club looked wicked, but Emil reckoned that they could bring the brute down without any casualties. Although he hadn’t admitted to murdering the party of elves, it was clear to everyone that Orik had at the very least born passive witness to their atrocious deaths. Even Orik’s association with the Cult of Rakdos was grounds for interrogation. Emil’s fists knotted and relaxed as he prepared for battle.
He cocked his head and asked, “Who started the fire then?”
“Oh,” Orik chuckled, “Right. That happened pretty late. One of Yeep’s cousins lit the heads on fire, which was bloody difficult when they didn’t have any hair left, let me tell you. Yeep started droppin’ ‘em after that, of course, ‘cause who can handle flamin’ heads?
“Pretty soon, that bumbat we spilled caught fire--drink we wouldn’t of spilled if the elves hadn’t started that tussle. Anyways, the whole place went up in no time. We all prob’ly coulda gotten out, ’cept Piggy is big into fire-dancin’. He started pushin’ around all the tables and chairs so he’d have room, but he ended up blockin’ the doors pretty good. Goblins start burnin’ and screamin’. Piggy dances until he turns to ash. Anyways, that’s pretty much how the fire happened.”
He shrugged his massive shoulders. “The strangers’ fault, like I said.”
Emil should have given the motion to rush the troll then. Despite his better instinct, Emil asked, “How did you get out, then? If you barreled through the wall, I assume the others would follow given the size hole you would make.”
From within his helmet, Orik snorted. “Nah. I never made it out. I was chokin’ on smoke and havin’ a hard time seein’ when Uzric appeared, like, out of nowhere. He said that you Wojek would be showin’ up today to find out what happened, and he wanted to make sure someone was here to tell you. Don’t know why he picked me, but maybe it’s ‘cause I was mostly watchin’ from the corner, so I had the best view.”
Emil glanced at the ruins. “But if you didn’t make it out, then how--? Oh.” Suddenly he recognized that awful stench from the troll. It was the smell of the dead. If he had been able to see the troll’s flesh, he may have noticed the odd coloration, the vacant stare, or possibly the horrific burns that must still be there.
Orik chuckled grimly as he saw Emil reach his conclusion. “Yeah, Uzric plays around with death magic a bit. He etched a magemark on me so I’d be here talkin’ to you. Crazy, huh?”
From the corner of his eye, Emil caught Vatek gaping at him in disbelief. Poor kid, Emil thought. He probably hadn’t met many Rakdos cultists. If he spent much more time in places like Merrytown, he would learn. At that moment, an odd thought struck Emil. He voiced it almost as soon as it formed.
“Orik?” Emil looked up, craning his neck. His headache pounded along with his quickening pulse.
“Hm?” the troll said.
“Why did Uzric care for you to deliver the message? Why did you want to tell only a captain?”
“Party’s a flop if anybody lives to talk about it, and I guess Uzric wasn’t ready for the party to be over.”
Emil blinked. Orik laughed.
“Oh, for the love of-” Emil groaned. “Run! Everyone! Get-”
Emil never finished the warning. Orik’s body crackled once, like a torch being lit, then exploded in wild, cackling, fire. Over the next three days, the blast and resulting blaze would consume nearly a third of Merrytown.