In another life Cecil Gray would have been a baker, or a hired hand.. or maybe just the town drunk, that would be fun! But as he had been all to aptly informed: Grays do not bake, they do not take odd jobs and had better be the ones collecting unpaid bar tabs rather than making them. But where does that leave Cecil? The family had long ago decided not to trust him with the secrets and subtleties required to transact black market goods. Cecil didn't have the skill at arms to serve as a guard nor the cross of those talents and the quick mind and light feet required for darker, better unspoken tasks. He didn't have the light fingers required for availing overly rich men of their overly full purses and when it came right down to it there wasn't anything particularly light about Cecil at all. He was reminded of that fact as his ankles sank deeply into a ox-pie left behind for his enjoyment by the cart he was following.
His brooding disrupted Cecil put his mind to the task ahead as he tapped his boot against a stone and cringed as he realized that some of his present had made it past the laces. All this for a few coppers and silvers owed by the local shop owners. "Protection" it was called, from what he had yet to determine. They grey family was powerful but against a terran invasion there was little their gangsters would be able to do, nor would the mortars and firebombs of the separatists be deflected by the sheer arrogance of his family name, more likely they would drown under the fluid rush of their own ego long before a single threat was turned away from those under their "protection. "
His first stop was the baker, 10 silver and 37 coppers (make that 11 silver). Then the carpenter who would feign poverty and offer spear and arrow shafts to be accepted graciously (make that 2 silver + the shafts). And finally the armoror who would normally trade shoes, nails, arrowheads and spearheads with a little coin (and a little extra coin). But not this time, the armoror had been trying his hand at gold and rubies for ceremonial blades for the court of Igins to hold with unblemished hands and wave about as if they had played some role worth note in the terran conflict. The trade of jewels must be far more profitable than the shoeing of horses or the production of brittle spearheads so he had been ordered to see how high he could push the price for Gray "protection" and ordered to retrieve no less than one gold coin or that value in silver.
Cecil hoped the gold was of standard Ignian crown mint because he did not have his own scales (nor did he really know how to use them even if he did.) As he tried to figure in his head how much silver would equate to gold if the coin was thicker or thinner, wider or longer or simply plated (or a forgery altogether) the ox-cart turned down branching path and into a field of gleaming spiked flowers hung heavy with hard-shelled fruit. As he watched one of the oxen, made oblivious to the danger by it's blinders, nudged the stalk of one the plants dislodging an overripe fruit to fall upon the spiked cowl at the base of the stem. The fruit exploded into a thin mist of sickly sweet smelling, and rather corrosive, dew that left the poor beast howling. Much to the chagrin of the driver, who had begun loosening his bullwhip at his belt to deal with the clumsy beast.
Cecil filed this under the "not my problem" section of his to-do list and quickly hurried away from the cursing driver and his foul smelling clumsy creatures. As he reached the town he noticed a number of the houses seemed a bit worse for the wear. Boarded doors and shattered windows clung loosely to rusted nails and rotted frames. conversely other houses boasted stunning gardens with fruits and flowers both native and foreign. Ornate fences painted with locally produced dyes and engraved by hand as hobby-craft by the owners. All a facade, attempts at appearing to have and be more than they were. Each rusted nail in the dilapidated houses had been hammered by young men eager to serve and foolish to think they would return. with the population so depleted in the war there was little work to be done so the lonely wives grew gardens for food and occupied themselves with ornamented fences hoping that loved ones would one day return. Other more realistic individuals understood the permanent nature of the situation and had left for the cities not realizing with the wars "over" the cannon factories would have little need for new labor.
Cecil reached the commercial district with its few still-open shops and many more boarded up ones (and some that had obviously previously been boarded up and then occupied by young entrepreneurs in the business of carting off other people's goods). He stopped to look at one of the abandoned and yet un-looted shops, a small alchemists hovel with a display of half-empty vials, cauldrons made from fire-hardened fruit shells and their corrosive contents bottled besides them . A dusty warning of the dangers of open flames hung near the substance. Just past the defunct alchemists shop was the baker who glared at him as he took his family's "protection" fee and a pastry from a cooling rack. Then the carpenter who complained that he had to cut down trees himself with all the young men not yet returned. Yet he gestured to two meager stacks of arrow and spear shafts, some of the arrows even fletched and paid his silver with a sniff. Finally Cecil came to the armoror. A hulking burly man with flames tattooed down his arm and fiery teardrops on the cheek below his left eye, three of them in a triangle.
Cecil watched as a lifted a heavy stone mould, deftly splitting apart the top and bottom halves by placing the ridge upon a cleft along the spine of the stone shell and removing the basic steel shape from within. He grabbed it with pair of tongs and thrust it into the furnace, removing a similar shape glowing red and placing it on the anvil as an one apprentice worked the bellows and another gingerly shut the trap as heat flooded the room. The giant lifted a heavy mallet and began pounding the steel against the anvil. He seemed oblivious to my presence until the reddened steal dulled to grey and the molten slag that flew with each blow was reduced to bright metallic sparks and then the futile clamor of the mallet's head against the cool, unbending metal. The smith beckoned to his apprentice to open the trap and placed the unfinished blade back in, frowning at the other blade, not yet as bright as it should be. He cuffed the boy at the bellows for his laziness and turned to me with a scowl: "what a pleasure, why does it always seem that all my most colorful customers are Grays?" He turned to the apprentice not at the bellows and gestured to a burlap sack in the corner. the boy scrambled to comply with the unstated demand. "the normal fare, arrowheads and horseshoes for my favorite customers, and 20 silver for their gracious "protection" His eyes burned a hole in my forehead with palpable heat, daring me to contest his meager fee. I was tempted to leave it at that, to claim the reports of his gold-work and jewelling and gilding to be untrue. Tempted to ignore the dust-covered garnets that glinted faintly from underneath a crack in the furnace.
"it's not e..enough" Cecil stammered, then with more confidence, "They Grays protection is not so cheap for goldsmiths. Ironsmiths pay with iron, arrowheads are the work of 'prentices. Form you the Grays require gold"
"I'm just a simple smith, I make horseshoes and shoe-nails, the heads of arrows and spears of little note. Those swords will bear wooden pommels when they are done. There's no gold here!" The smith spoke in level tones, his eyes glinting red as thin lines traced a rune between the teardrops on his cheek. "you'll take what I gave you and go, or next time I'll give you a golden sword up the 'arse and paint it red."
"Do you think we Grays are stupid?" Cecil asked, "Do you think you can just threaten a Gray? I can see the garnets you misplaced below the furnace from here, A simple smith you may be and poorly skilled! But I know some fools had you make them swords and daggers with gilded pommels and they Grays will have their... protection... from you."
"I'm done paying protection to the Grays, I've got the eye of the high court now, making trinkets for the little lordlings to wave in front of the pretty ladies of the capital." The Pyromancer growled, "I don't need...protecting. matter of fact..." he grinned, " I think it's you needs protecting from me now! why don't you hand over what you took from the poor folk of this town and leave and maybe I'll let you keep your head!" He glared at the apprentices and they brought him the strangest battleaxe I had ever seen. The counterweight was a metal flask of oil and a tube stretched from the weight to the blade and fed veined rivulets in that formed the rune of fire, he hefted it with the blade at the ground and twisted a valve and the metal rivulets slowly filled with oil, his eyes lanced with elemental fire and the rune on his cheek glowing red.
... This was not going as planned. I was not unarmed, I had daggers at my belt and at my ankle, flash powder, and a small skin of poison salve to tip the daggers before a fight (too late now). I removed the dagger from my belt and turned my side to face my opponent while I tried to work the string on the flash powder with my off-hand. "You don't want to do this. We grays protect our own! You'll pay...." As the warrior closed the valve and touched the rune on his cheek and then the rune on the axe the blade alit and Cecil found himself wondering when he had fled the smithy for the street. He would have pondered longer but he could hear the pound of heavy feet so he kept moving.
He could not escape the man on foot so he dove for the nearest cover, throwing his shoulder against the brittle door of the alchemist's shop and looking for a place to hide. He slid between a cabinet and the wall and readied his flash powder as the Blacksmith widened the doorway to accommodate his width by shearing away part of the wall with a single cleave of his axe. Trapped... Cecil thought to himself, I'm flamin' trapped. Either he was being toyed with or the smith had truely not spotted him yet, would that the urine running down his leg would extinguish that axe he might have been able to fight him (not win mind you, but a few flicks of his dagger to save face before he died.) He readied the flash powder and tried to crouch, but as he did he bumped the cabinet. a cascade of shells and vials fell from an upper drawer as the sickly sweet smell from the vials mixed with other odors of his own making. In a mirror across the room he saw the blacksmith's grin, eliciting a small puff of smoke as he raised his axe above his head and charged the cabinet. Cecil hit the deck, all sense of respect and dignity gone but for acceptance of his fate.
The blacksmith meant to cut him right through the cabinet. The screech of metal cleaving metal wrenched the air, the heat of molten slag washing upon him singeing his eyes and clothes, as he closed his eyes the last thing he saw was the sigil above the window display, the crossed out flame. Flammable. All at once all of the air in the room rushed to the center of the cabinet, and the next the was no room. The explosion wrenched from the gash in the front of the cabinet like a geyser, enveloping the surprised pyromancer who quickly became a surprised pile of ash and singed leather. the axe was in pieces, the oil-flask-pommel flew out a window to detonate in the street in a puff of liquid black smoke. the cabinet was thicker than he had realized and was bolted to the floor but the heat was threatening to boil Cecil's face off so he pressed it into a growing pool of water on the floor.
Cecil would have stayed there, unable to move, paralyzed by fear of his near death, the geysering flames, and the opiate of each unexpected second of life but the flash power he had dropped detonated waking him from his stupor and causing him to blindly stumble from the conflagration. His dagger had melted to his glove from the heat, his eyebrows were all but gone and with only the liquid from the floor protecting his face from further burns.
He stumbled into the Street and screamed in anger and frustration and pain. He grit his teeth and forced one foot before the other. Again, and again until he stood before the wide eyed apprentices. with difficulty he raised his eyes to meet their saline tears with his own red tears and spoke but one word: "GOLD." Without speaking he procured a horse, food from the baker, a hidden stash of arrow shafts from the carpenter, several gilded and gemmed armaments and a full 10 gold pieces and larger amounts of small-change. A woman coming home from her days tasks shrank away from him screaming of blood and death and bloody Grays as he rode from the town.
Cecil realized he the tears On his face were not his tears, nor were they tears at all. The blacksmith's blood had begun to congeal around his face. As he looked back on at the smoke pouring from what once the alchemist's shack and wiped the foulness from his face he thought to himself "blood is thicker than water" and turned to the road ahead.