This story had to relate historical events based on a single sitting of the game, Citadels
Jann wheeled through the gaslit streets, holding his head with one hand. A single note resonated through his mind, clear and persistent, as if he had been struck by a tuning fork. It scattered his thoughts and shattered his concentration, threatening to strangle and then drown him in its ever-growing pitch. He slipped on a cobblestone and crashed into the side of a waiting carriage, evoking a short curse from the driver as the horses startled.
“Bloody drunkard,” the man whispered as Jann looked up to him with pleading, bloodshot eyes. A single gloved hand reached out from the perch at the carriage front. Their eyes met for a second, as two fingers hit Jann’s forehead and gently shoved. The driver grimaced as Jann’s knees buckled beneath him, bringing him hard over backwards into a pile on the ground. The tone sliced through his head like a solid plane of polished steel, and he writhed on the ground beneath its touch. He tried to speak as the carriage met its passengers, but the tone did not leave room to form words. Tears welled into the corners of his eyes as the carriage pulled away, the horses’ hooves clacking against the cobblestone in the lonely night.
“Having a spot of trouble?”
Jann looked up to see the owner of the voice. The man wore black from head to heel, leather shoes under a black suit under a deep overcoat that fell to his feet. The brim of a dark bowler hung over his face, casting his features into shadow.
“Help me,” Jann whispered. His mind grabbed frantically for each word, willing it out before it shattered to pieces against the unyielding surface of the tone. “My head….”
The man tugged gently at the base of his gloves, each in turn. “What note is it?” he asked.
“What?” Jann said.
“What note is it?” the man repeated. “In your head, you are hearing a single tone, very loud, and very clear. What note is it?”
Jann forced himself to his knees and grabbed his temples. His hand, filthy both from the street tonight and his days in the quarry, left smears of muck across his forehead, but he neither noticed nor cared. He sucked in great gasps of breath and tried to steady himself.
“Focus on it,” the stranger told him. “Tell me what note it is, and I can help you.”
“I don’t know!” Jann barked.
The stranger’s hand flew swiftly, popping Jann sharply across cheek before he even saw the man move. “Focus!” the man shouted. “If you can tell me what note it is, I can help you.”
Jann closed his eyes, and forced himself to concentrate on the ringing in his head. It had grown so loud that it now threatened to burst free, to explode from behind his eyeballs and wail deafeningly through the city streets, filling the city even to the Wall itself like water filling a basin. His head could no longer contain it; his ears must surely burst from the inside.
“A!” he shrieked at last. “It’s A!”
The stranger nodded and reached into his overcoat. From it, he produced a tiny instrument that Jann had never seen before, like several reeds bound together with an iron clasp. A thin crank extended from one side of the clasp, and this the stranger turned as he blew into the reeds. Two notes whistled from it simultaneously, together but dissonant. The note in Jann’s head seemed to merge with them, resolving the two into a perfect chord. For a brief second, the chord rang true, then slowly, the stranger stopped cranking his little instrument and the noise faded. When the last little trill faded away, the tone in Jann’s head had disappeared. He let out a huge sigh of relief and collapsed to his hands.
“Simply a matter of finding the right cage to take it in,” the stranger said, placing the instrument back into his overcoat. “Feeling better then, are we?”
Jann nodded, still speechless. He forced himself back to his knees and slowly clambered to his feet. “Thank you, sur,” he muttered. “Thank you for what you done, whatever it was. I thought my head were about to explode.” The stranger stood nearly a head taller than he, and he looked up to see the man’s face for the first time. He was tanned and bespectacled, without a beard or moustaches, and the lines around his eyes showed him to be in late middle age.
“Have you heard that tone before?” the man asked.
Jann shook his head. “No sur,” he said, “and with the good grace of the One Lord upon me, I hope to never hear it again.”
The stranger frowned. “You will hear it again,” he said. “You will hear it several more times, I expect, before this business is through. Tell me, have you ever seen a White Man?”
Jann gritted his teeth. He had been through this conversation many times, and it never ended well. “The Church be saying that we are not to speak of these things, sur,” he said. “Your pardon,” he added.
“But you have,” the man said, matter of factly. Jann nodded, slowly. “When?”
The night had grown quite chill, or maybe it always had been, and he simply hadn’t noticed against the pressure of the omnipresent ringing. Jann brought his hands to his shoulders and rubbed them gently. “Once when I were little. Not again till a fortnight ago. Now I see ‘em right regular, on the Great Wall or out in the quarry at night. I don’t believe in spirits, though, sur, you should know that.” He shook his head vehemently. “I don’t know what them things are, but I don’t believe they are the ghosts of the fallen.”
The stranger nodded. “What you have experienced just now,” he said, “is a resonance. An aftershock. The White Men, too, have something of that in them. What is your name?”
“Jann Stenvrusin, sur, my father’s only son, and only father to mine.” The moon was high overhead, and the thought of his son brought to mind the scolding he would get upon returning home. Still, he could not part ways with the stranger yet, not after what the man had done, what he had said. Jann shuffled his feet absently, fear and intrigue keeping them from moving to far while the stranger regarded him with a patrician air.
“I am Brundle,” the man said at last. “I am a vassal to the Thief-King and a thrall to an order that had its birth with this city. I could have use of you, Stenvrusin. There is an old magic awakening. Those sensitive to it are few and far between.”
Jann shuffled his feet more now and lowered his eyes to the bottom of the stranger’s coat. “Your pardon again, Lord Brundle,” he said. “And I do not mean to speak out of turn, sur, not now or ever sur, but the Thief-Kings are dead, sur. And I do not know if I ought to be trafficking with anyone who holds to that order of demons that got laid bare them many years ago sur, if that be the order you’re meaning, sur.” Jann was ten years old when the knights of Janeus broke through the Great Wall and brought battle to the hidden cabal of demon-worshipers who once ruled this city. He had seen them ride through with the last Thief-King’s head on a pike, and had been in the crowd the day the High Bishop proclaimed the city to be free of its hidden scourge. And yet, here this man spoke of such things as though they lived on, as though they were acceptable to talk about in the open, in common company. The wind whipped a bit of newspaper past the two. Jann glanced behind him to see a couple of old dock-workers making their way past on a nearby cross-street. At least, he thought, he wasn’t totally alone here.
“It is the same order,” Brundle said, “though its roots go far past that devil-worshipping nonsense of some years ago. And there is indeed a living Thief-King, though if you lot knew much about him, it would make his business much harder, I expect. And I expect you would do well to come with me. You see ghosts and hear sounds from beyond our sphere, Stenvrusin. What else are you going to do with yourself?”
Jann sighed. “To be honest, sur?” he asked. Brundle nodded. “To be honest, sur,” he continued, straightening his back and looking the taller man in the eye, “I’m going to go home, sur. I’m going to be yelled at by my wife, and my son will be abed before I get there. Tomorrow, I will get up and march out that gate to the quarry beyond the walls, and there I will suck down devil’s dust so that the engines might run between her and Janeus and Caralot and Sonnen far to the South. And one day, if I’m lucky, I will ride one of those trains and spend a day somewhere else for a change. I may break my back, sur, but I will not have to deal with no White Men, nor any cults nor thieves nor tones in my head. And I will be right happier that way, sur.”
Brundle shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “I won’t force you. Yet. But I suspect things will get worse for you before better, Stenvrusin.” He turned on his heel and clacked off down the dark street. Jann’s shoulders slumped.
“Stenvrusin!” Brundle called as he reached the corner. “There are places of power here, you will feel them. You already have. They are coming together, together into one. Be wary of those places. They will sing to you!” Then he was gone.Jann nodded, though the other man could not see. Above him, the gaslight flickered and died. He reached up and rubbed his head gently, the memory of the tone still ringing in his ears. For a long moment, he stood in the dark, until the thought of White Men and Thief-Kings sent him running back to his home.