Authors: P. Aaron Potter
P. Aaron Potter
“God does not play dice with the universe.”
-- Albert Einstein
“God does play dice with the universe. All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible occasion.”
-- Stephen Hawking
Chapter 1 – Blind Man’s Bluff
In every game, there are winners and there are losers. In most cases, it is easy to recognize the likely winner well before the game’s conclusion: most systems reward aggressive play, long-term strategy coupled with short-term, tactical flexibility. The player with the most devotion to understanding and manipulating this system, the one who maximizes his gains and minimizes his risks, the most ruthlessly savvy, is the one most likely to win.
This is the first law of gaming, and most people learn it as children, whether by playing tag in a back yard in Ohio, or Cheng Li-Min after school in Beijing, or scratching a tic-tac-toe grid in the dirt of a street in Bangladesh. Learn the rules, and play to win.
The second law is this: randomness happens. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and even the most painstakingly exact strategy is subject to the roll of the dice. Sometimes long-shots come in. Sometimes double-sixes spell the unexpected end of a flawless round. Sometimes a crow eats your golf ball. And sometimes the fool who goes all-in on an inside straight pulls out that sweet, sweet missing card and wins the jackpot.
The second law trumps the first law every single time.
Druin the Reaver – thief, sell-sword, shadow-walker, and scourge of the night – was contemplating the second law as he cowered in the darkness, waiting to die. No more than ten feet away, a troll-kin slaver, a seven-foot nightmare of gaunt muscle and leathery blue skin, sniffed the air hungrily. When it finally caught his scent underneath the mustiness of the cave and the stench of the slaves, it would be on him.
Part of him wondered why he wasn’t dead already.
He didn’t know it yet, wouldn’t know it for some weeks, but someone else, someone watching him, was wondering the same thing.
The deeper, primal portion of Druin's mind was fiercely devoted to the problem of how he might escape being beaten to death. Death was no fun. It had been weeks since he’d last died, and he wasn’t looking forward to the grueling post-mortem recovery process. But he knew from painful experience that his subconscious mind was better suited to figuring out matters of survival without his interference. Druin therefore devoted the greater part of his thoughts to the sequence of events which had brought him here.
At what precise moment had their careful plan gone so violently wrong? What decision had twisted a fairly simple bit of robbery and murder towards this likely fatal crisis?
Where, in short, had they blown it?
Perhaps it was when Uriah and Wisefellow had first approached him at the Bitter Edge town fountain. Maybe he should have resisted temptation. There were always rumors about troll slavers up and down the coast, but the reports had seemed legitimate this time. Uriah had bribed a merchant captain and discovered that a sizeable colony had been spotted lurking amongst the rocks at low tide, just south of the city. Additional bribes had procured a map of the town sewers, including their crucial intersections with the natural sea caves.
Uriah saw to the repair of their armor and weaponry. Wisefellow haggled for talismans and charms with the powerful Binders’ Guild. It fell to Druin to procure rope, tools, provisions, and other mundane supplies. With a generous advance he was even able to quietly acquire a few needs of his own: a fine new set of lock-picks, a precious supply of venom with which to coat his knives, and a charm tattooed with some kind of berry juice onto both legs by a seedy looking street vendor, “guaranteed” to silence his footsteps for a full week.
Perhaps he should have purchased the talisman which would have rendered him invisible, too. If the troll spotted him now, he would pay for his frugality with his life.
He could at least take pride in the flawless execution of his part of the work. In the dead of night, Druin and Uriah had pried open the grating of the town's northernmost sewage drain, while Wisefellow kept an eye out for the night watch. A brief trek through the sewer tunnels had brought them to a barricade of scrap metal, bolted together to form a rough gate. Druin's nimble fingers made short work of the lock, as well as the spring-loaded catch which would have showered a less cautious intruder with needles. Close examination revealed these had been prized from sea urchins and coated with sea-snake venom. Nasty stuff.
The three fortune-hunters had made their way carefully through the stonework tunnels of the sewer system, then the naturally smooth tubes of the sea-caves, trying their best not to splash noisily in the ankle-deep water. Druin’s tattooed charm had either washed off or proven a poor bargain – he made as much noise as his companions. Their progress had been surprisingly swift, and Uriah had had to silence only two troll-kin guardsmen, not even true sea-trolls but half-breeds which gave him little trouble. They paused only long enough for Druin to expertly loot the corpses of any valuables.
Before long, the trio had found themselves in an ovular grotto filled with booty taken from the sea-trolls’ slaves: fine clothing, weapons, jewelry and other possessions stuffed haphazardly into shark-leather chests, made water-tight with kelp sap. The companions had wisely decided that such easy pickings were a good return on investment, and had quickly stuffed the best of the loot into their packs. Selling these goods back in town would provide them with the gold necessary to outfit an assault on the trolls’ actual treasury, which must be deeper in the caves.
Their escape route had led them past the slave-pens.
And that, Druin, realized, had been their mistake: the point from which all the subsequent disaster had predictably issued. It was an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of psychology and opportunity. Given his nature, the situation, the timing, all of it, there was no other way events could have transpired. Choosing that route had led, inevitably, to his hiding behind a rock, waiting for a troll slaver to bash in his brains, or eat off his face, or something equally unpleasant.
Following Uriah and Wisefellow past yet another branching corridor, Druin had happened to glance to his right, just in time to see a sea-troll beating a chained group of new slaves into their prison. The brute was a colossal example of its kind, fully nine feet of lank muscle, incongruously beautiful sapphire skin stretched over taut sinew, bony joints, and a wide mouth, stretched even wider in a ferocious grin which revealed a forest of barbed teeth. The object of the troll's attention had been a girl, no more than twelve. The troll was kicking her very thoroughly.
Even now, crouched behind his boulder, Druin gave himself credit for pausing long enough for one woeful glance at Wisefellow's back, retreating into the darkness. Uriah was the pragmatic type, but Wisefellow was as sympathetic as the next man. More practical than Druin, but then, so were most people. Even Druin, when he was thinking dispassionately, would have known that his impulsive thought, seeing the troll abuse the girl, was a bad idea. If he had thought too much about it, Druin would have managed to talk himself out of his resolve. And so, naturally, he had acted as swiftly as possible. Quickly, but with exquisite care, he’d loaded his blowgun, and an eighth of a second later a three inch needle sprouted from the troll's tonsils.
The shriek of the guardsman was soon echoed by the querying howls of its comrades, and then the angry peal of an alarm bell. The slaves themselves simply stared in mute terror as their warden clutched, gurgling, at its throat, and then collapsed at their feet as the poison took hold. It had been a
good blend of venoms, Druin noted to himself, even as he raced into the chamber and knelt by the nearest slave, lockpicks already scrabbling at the clasps which bound her to her companions.
A splash from behind caused him to whirl on his knees, his longest knife already out and held at the ready, but it was Uriah, skidding to a halt on the scummy stones of the central holding area. The stocky warrior had his axe out, and had pushed back the visor on his helmet to reveal a homely face twisted in fury.
"What are you doing?!?" he hissed, somehow managing to convey that he would like to have roared the question, but that he still hoped they might escape detection.
"What does it look like? I'm setting these slaves free."
A wet scrabbling from behind Uriah meant that Wisefellow had joined them. "What is happening?"
"This fool says he's freeing the slaves!"
Druin winced as his second pick snapped in the heavy lock.
"What?" Wisefellow gave Druin a strained grin through his ginger beard. "Druin, come along, quickly! We
free the slaves, at a later time, but I thought we had agreed that today was for reconnaissance...and the trolls are coming!"
"I know, I know! But this will just take another second..."
Uriah gripped his shoulder hard. "Come on! You're going to get us all killed!" He gave the assembled slaves a sour once over. "Even if you got the lock open, we'll never get this bunch past the guards!"
"Maybe they're just stunned," Druin muttered.
"Fool!" Uriah repeated, throwing his arms up in disgust, his armor clanking. "You know, I'd heard you pulled these kinds of stunts, but I thought they were making it up. And you!" he jabbed a gauntleted finger into Wisefellow's sternum. "You told me he was good at this! I trusted you!"
Druin hefted the lock and glared at it. "It's just one lock. You could divert the guards, draw them the other way while Wise' leads the prisoners to the exit."
Wisefellow shook his head wearily and sighed. "Druin...why do you do this to me? No, do not answer that...there is no time." He pointed to the cave's entrance, where gaunt, humanoid shadows were beginning to flicker in the light of approaching torches.
"You stay if you want, I'm out of here!" Uriah declared, hefting his axe once more and turning towards the passage. But even as he did so, the lock in Druin's hand finally snapped open with a decisive click.
Druin was up off his knees in an instant, unthreading the chains from the prisoners' manacles. "Uriah, the guards!" He adopted his most pleading expression.
Uriah glared back fiercely, then clapped down the visor on his helmet with a final, derisive snort. He marched towards the passageway, calling back over his shoulder, "Don't ever say I've never done anything for you! And if this goes wrong, Druin, it's coming out of your share!" As he reached the passage, he was briefly illuminated in orange light of the advancing torches. "Hey, frog-face!" he bellowed, "come and get it!" The trolls gave a furious howl as he sped away into the darkness, closely pursued by the gangling figures.
"He's not going to make it," Druin predicted glumly.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Wisefellow replied, plucking a tiny, clear gemstone from his bag. "He can move very quickly when he is properly motivated." He twisted the crystal between his fingers and tossed it into the air over his head. There was a brief flare of actinic white light and when Druin had stopped blinking, Wisefellow was only perceptible as a pale outline, as insubstantial as the milling group of slaves he had already enchanted. They were still audible, the clank of chains and the rustle of their ragged clothing a counterpoint to the far-off din of Uriah’s pursuers. Visually, however, they were almost undetectable, and Druin prayed the trolls would be too deafened by the clangor of their own alarms to hear them as they made their escape.
Wisefellow waved cheerily – or at least Druin thought that particular vague shadow was Wisefellow’s. "In any case, that is no longer our problem. The problem is that I have just enough clearstone to blind the guards I will encounter guiding these prisoners through the maze. I cannot hide you from prying eyes as well. You must manage on your own, while I lead these slaves to the sewer entrance. If I release them there, that should qualify as a rescue.” The fitful light made seeing the line of slaves even harder, but the receding voice told Druin that Wisefellow was already herding them out through the side exit. “I will return shortly, and we will try to discover another way out of here."
The approaching torchlight from the main entry made any admonishment to hurry redundant. There was barely time for Druin to pull himself into the shadows before two more of the hulking slavers loped into the room. From his hiding place, Druin could see them much more clearly than before. Uriah had made a valid point with his departing cry: they did indeed have frog-faces: toothy ones.
For a while, Druin was able to entertain the notion that when their initial search turned up nothing, the two slavers might join the hunt for Uriah. After a hurried consultation, one of them did stalk away, though whether to join the search or to return with reinforcements was uncertain. But the other stayed, taking up a position near the entryway.