Money Makes the World Go Round

Well not quite. It should be made clear from that start that, in this post-apocalyptic world riddled with magic and mayhem that we experience in Sojourners in Shadow, there is no global currency. There is nothing that everyone uses. People barter, that happens everywhere. If you want to trade then you need to be able to give up something yourself. But the world contains patches of civilisation, and in those money has taken some form. So here I’ll explain them: each place, each type, and give some kind of context and history about them.

The first place to start has to be Trade Island. As the name suggests, trade is the main aim, and while you can barter and swap goods, a form of money had to come about. Now if you’re a high up and wealthy member of a business family, then a credit note is all you need. These are worth whatever is written on them, because everyone knows you have that money, so if words say you’re giving that to someone else, you are. It also helps that the families all keep their main wealth in the same bank, the Vault, so dealing with each other is literally no more than moving numbers about. Others can use credit notes too, but you had better be someone of worth, otherwise you could end up eating that note. Or worse.

As for a more menial form of money, something that looks pretty but is not really valuable, then people use gems. These are small crystals, not like anything of this world as we know it today, and that’s because gleaners make them. Literally. Gems are gleaner shit. They often leave their, well, leavings about their caves and tunnels to give off a small glimmer of reflected light. Gleaners see better in the dark than most monsters but they don’t fully see in it. Whatever their cause and use, the people of Trade Island handle these daily, buying goods. Some know where they came from. Most don’t. Most don’t want to know nor care to. In Trade Island, handling gems is the least of the dirty tasks you’ll have to do to get by.

In many places money has developed where humans are maintaining communities, especially small forms of civilisation. In essence, if things are in order and people are trying to trade and grow, then a currency is created.

In Central Asia, across the steppes, where many tribes and gatherings have merged, the people have developed coins. At first, they were made of precious metals, but over time they used cheaper things and were pledges, as in I don’t have this money to buy, but if you give this to someone else in my tribe, they will give you something. Tribes and groups had coins that had the names of their leaders on, as a sign or promise that they were supporting this pledge. You would use a coin to buy something and any problems later on could be taken to the leader himself and he might pay up, or at least see recompense made. This gave the leaders more prestige, and also more power. This led to a counter move by certain richer people, who began to make their own coins and give them out, and people used them as they knew these had the wealth to back up the offer. These people were also looking for a currency that could be used beyond each tribe, as more and more were moving closer together to avoid enemies, and more were trading together. This is what led to the rise of the kulaks, the merchant class that now has power without being leaders or elders. By now, most coins are cheap metal with kulak family names on, and are handed about and taken as worth, and so, while people still barter, the wealthy have a form of power over others.

The Deliverer is a ship, stranded in the Pacific Ocean. To be honest, it is three ships, but they have been fixed together so long the humans living there see it as one. They are a practical people, surviving by working together, so for them, you mainly get what your role earns. Everyone is meant to contribute. Yet some tokens were made long ago, small bits of scrap metal cut and stamped by machinery. There’s nothing fancy about them, they have numbers for value on, and marks from the machines down below to prove they’re authentic. You have any and you can hand them over to buy yourself something special once in a while, to get a bit more than your role in the ship earns you. Some frown on them, wondering why they’re still around when they haven’t been made in a long time. In a way, it is an expression of individuality within the community. Most likely that’s why their production was ceased.

The Northern Federation, because it has had to grow, regrow and develop, has dabbled in money a few times before now. At one point wooden tokens were currency, once you had etched your name and debt on. Some still use these, mostly in the villages. In the cities they have gone back to coins and notes. Oddly enough, there is a direct parallel with the market towns of Europe across the sea. While the Northern Federation are together, the cities themselves tend to compete. Each produces money with their name on. They are all acceptable across the region, but it has become a matter of pride for each city. Carthage was the first to make coins with its name on. It pushed them to the other cities with a passion, seeking its place as first city, which it gained. After a while, the other cities fought back with their own coins, but this had to be negotiated. Basically, the coins, and later the paper notes, had to be the same value across the Federation, and all were to be accepted. Money could be used to promote pride in your home city, but it couldn’t actually become an act of independence. Also, while it was never made official, the Carthaginian coinage was favoured. By now, notes and coins are commonplace, the first called dollars, the latter, which are bronze metal, are pennies.

The Mediterranean market towns are developing money. At first people made coins to try and pay for things, but as market towns grew and became known settlements, they were able to make their own coins. People in those places were commanded to accept them as money, and so others began to do so, knowing they can be used there. Barter still goes on, but more towns are producing coins and as their trade and influence spreads, so does the coins. Funnily, pirates have been a big boost in this. By robbing the merchants of the Mediterranean, they’re the ones first responsible for taking coins to other places, and exchanging them with other coins.

The Coalition of the South has money that harks back to the era before the Shadow World. Back then, the region was an important trading nation and it did well, the perfectly placed go-between for other countries. In that time, the rand and cents were currency, and the people today remember such things, and more. They use paper notes, called rand but sometimes dollars too, and cents are the coins, which look gold, hearkening back to the glorious trade era. The cities of the Coalition are more inland and secluded, unlike those of the Northern Federation, so their money has yet to be taken abroad. Perhaps soon.

A final mention goes to Australasia, where they have notes and coins as well. When the nation was formed, including the Aussies, the Brits, the Americans and the Japanese, they had to agree to a currency to share, to include them all and maintain equality. The easiest thing to do was to stick with Aussie dollars and cents. They’re not the same as today, obviously, but called the same and used for the same purposes. Only in the wilder central areas would anyone think of bartering instead of just delving into their wallet. Oh, it should also be mentioned that some Americans and Brits use old slang for coins, such as dimes and shillings.

Those are the major realms and communities where money has emerged once again. New, and yet fulfilling an old purpose. The more humans spread and interact, the more they need stable forms of currency to work with. So far there is nothing that works around the world. It is too fractured a place. It can be pointed out that bullets, fuel or food are forms of currency, far more sought after than most coins on a global scale. But as time passes and more groups become organised, these forms of money can begin to overlap. Already Mediterranean settlements work with money from the Northern Federation, and vice versa. As the two sides get to know each other, it is possible the merchants will push for a common currency. Others might well oppose it.

Many places around the world have no need for money. Cyborg sects are fighting a constant war for the betterment of the human race, so getting paid or buying goods isn’t even considered, not even among the less united groups. When a power rules, there rarely develops a need for money so at Constantinople the military takes as it likes, although some settlements of mutants are beginning to trade secretly with other places. Eden is a place of science, faith and unity, so wealth is abhorrent, and in the religiously inspired Octagon State in Texas, the love of money is still seen as the root of all evil.

Perhaps those people are right, perhaps not. With money, people find themselves able to buy, to improve their lives, to provide for others. Yet there is no doubt that often, the creation of coins has been done as some seek to exercise power over others. By making a form of currency, not only can that be used to praise your greatness – bearing your name, perhaps even your image – it means you get to set the standards. Whether it be Carthage or the kulaks, the market towns or the business families, those with the wealth and the will seek to rule others via the power of the coin. The pen is claimed mightier than the sword, although others can argue the gun beats both. Yet to these people, the coin beats them all. As currencies develop and spread, we will see who is right.

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The Importance of Trade Island

So I haven’t put up a Sojourners in Shadow blog for a bit, and as I’m planning on bringing the shorts out (somehow) soonish, I had better get back into it.

A great place to start would be to talk about Trade Island. This is a place that has a lot going on, with a variety of characters and groups involved, and has an important role in the world, with that role getting more and more significant as times goes on. As I write the shorts, I have a general rule of writing two shorts set in Trade Island among every ten stories, all of which will be set around the world. Sometimes I may only do one, but no place in the world of Sojourners in Shadow has even that level of consistent coverage. Trade Island is a special place, a melting pot that reflects the world and yet also is unique, carrying its own history and future, both of which matter. A lot.

Trade Island is a fitting title, but not the full description, as you can imagine. It is an island and it is essentially a capitalist society, built upon trading with each other rather than killing. Of course, there is a lot of killing still, yet this is typically for gain or competition rather than old grudges or speciest warfare. Also, while it is an island, the domain stretches beyond that. There is a city on the island, a packed one, but there are also rundown settlements across the water where humans reside who want to be a part of the place yet can’t get there. To be accepted into Trade Island, you either need to be in it from the start or prove yourself useful. Both is best.

To explain the place we have to start with its past. As with everywhere else in the world, things were in turmoil due to the arrival of the Shadow World, but the real history comes slightly after. When society was collapsing, as order was cracking apart, humans fled to the city on this island. A mutant army was on its way, filled thoughts of revenge. People already lived on the island, obviously, but many more dwelt around it and they all crowded on, with what forces they had destroying the bridges and then setting up to resist the enemy. As the story goes, there was brief conflict, but the mutants couldn’t get far and they ended up settling nearby – in part to get their revenge at a later date, yet also as this region had been their home too. Here they could have a new life. So these two groups sat in a wary stalemate while the world around them tore itself apart.

When it happened isn’t certain, it is highly unlikely there was a specific day that everything changed. But eventually the humans, with their gathered resources, found the mutants, who had sat there for some time, were open to trade. The mutants weren’t starving or lacking for too much, but they were trying to build a new society up, whereas the humans were already set. Of course, the city that had once stood had taken a lot of damage, mostly from the mutants, and there were sporadic acts of violence as people tried to settle into a new way of life. The city before had been hectic, dangerous and capitalist. It wasn’t weird to anyone who lived in the transforming place that these ways continued. So, if the mutants couldn’t be driven away by force, then perhaps trade was a way forward. The mutants saw the sense too. It is very likely secret agreements went on for some time before it became an open thing, and yet it was made public, and it went well.

It was better to try and get along, for a price, than to destroy each other. This became the thinking of Trade Island, and also of the people around it. The mutants became a nation of their own, electing a president, having a standing army (which I can get into more another time), and benefiting from trading with the humans. Then machines arrived, and they saw this transaction, and they saw the logic in it. The humans and mutants were very cautious, but if they could overcome their mutual hatred, then they could overcome that. They did. Monsters came too. More beings of all types started to gather, hearing rumours of a city, of a living that didn’t involve scavenging and raiding.

That is to say, there was plenty of both among the lower classes, but still, the droppings of the city were better than out in the wastelands. Over the two centuries since the Shadow World came, Trade Island has developed from a place with a suspicious understanding between two enemies, to a gathering of various races and beings, where the city sits between a mutant nation, a machine nation and a kingdom of monsters, while within its border thrive humans, monsters and mutants, and even the odd machine. There are seven bridges and across them trade and people go back and forth. More recently, the docklands are becoming important as ships have started to reach to settlements across the seas. Word has spread of this place and is still spreading, so that far off lands want to get into a trade relationship with it, while others hear of it as a story, and often laugh at the idea of beings living together.

Trade Island has a mayor and a police force, along with public buildings like a library and a bank. It has the trappings of civilisation. It works and runs like a society should in many respects, with elections and taxes, crimes and arrests, with homes, taverns, the docks and more. Yet this isn’t how the city truly lives, and everyone knows it. Crime is so widespread it is the norm. The police are there for show mostly, usually paid to look the other way; also to make people feel safe by patrolling. They do act, but often when it suits the authorities or their wealthy allies. There is no justice system. Most of the arrests are on poor scumbags who get dragged to a prison and thrown in, with a sentence being handed out at some point, but who knows if anyone will remember it. Some escape, but if you know the right people, you can be escorted out with dignity. Crime pays.

The driving force behind what Trade Island is remains the business families. From the beginning there were a number of wealthy and influential groups in the city, and for all the necessary cohesion due to the threat from the mutants, these people were always intent on staying on top. The best residences were secured, private security was arranged, and a strong if quiet word in the ear of any form of leadership ever since has occurred. They made sure commerce was the dominant force and pushed for outside trade. They even chose new identities. They searched history, found people to imitate and then did so. Alliances were made, mergers took place. They evolved over the centuries. By now, only seven business families remain, yet their power is as undeniable as ever.

The gangs are almost as important. Again, they have been there since the beginning. In fact, if any had access to older history, the inhabitants would know that gangs have been tearing up the streets since well before the Shadow World came. But afterward, once humans had crowded on and the mutant attacks had subsided, criminal activity began to soar. To survive was to have to fight to keep and to strive to take. People endured as best they could, but for many the best way was the way of the gang. Join up, play your part and get by. There have been many famous gangs and most people can tell stories passed on of what gang did what and when. The gangs are so ingrained into Trade Island’s way of life that even the business families can’t remove them, but then they have no wish to – the chaos they cause helps hide their own activities and the criminal element can easily be hired to work for their betters. Sometimes a gang is so strong it sits on top, as Leopold’s gang does right now, yet often they are all a vicious, whirling mass of rivalry and resentment.

A quick note should be made here that only humans are among the business families, but all kinds rank in the gangs. Leopold has a machine working for him, which has given him a useful edge. The machine nation itself tends to keep its distance as the locals aren’t keen on them. Machines have a reputation for trying to eradicate and replace all other life. This group has thus far been benign, so it is tolerated and traded with, but Leopold is a rare being who has close links to them. He helped them trade, and so they gave him a destructive robotic henchman, and while he no longer counts himself as a businessman, he keeps his contacts. Just in case.

While Trade Island does good business with its neighbours, there’s no doubt the old fears haven’t left. As mentioned, machines are rarely allowed in. When it comes to the mutants, they can come over in groups, but nothing too big, and while it is normal for people to be armed, groups of mutant soldiers will be watched closely. The president, whoever that may be, can come and visit. After all, how else can business be done? Yet the military head is another matter. Right now, General Bracken leads the mutant army, and her belligerent manner has meant she is not welcome across the river.

Even the Demon King puts on a polite front. This devil-beast has created a kingdom to the south and his court makes many visits. His own son is a known presence in brothels and gambling dens. But then his son is a lazy brat, so the people tend not to cower before him. The same cannot be said of his father. Ballathane, the Demon King, is a very focused and powerful being, and for him to stride the streets of the city evokes deep-seated dread in many. Therefore, he can visit now and then, but not too often. He has allies and enemies within the city, and he finds the ways of humans fascinating, so the odd tour appeals to him. Otherwise he can sit on his throne and plan his way to greater glory.

Then there’s the Enchantress. The single surviving member of a powerful business family, now a mysterious woman none has seen for years who has the ability to capture people’s minds. Her followers are utterly subservient to her, not least the highly intelligent Hugo, her able assistant. Together they wield influence in slight and subtle ways, using people without them knowing too much about it, backing the current mayor into power, seeking to gain advantages to use. The Enchantress is a clever person, she knows she has to make the right moves, and yet she is perhaps one of the most ambitious in Trade Island. Needless to say, she and the Demon King are rivals.

Thus, with some significant individuals and groups stationed in Trade Island, it follows that power attracts power. Those who live, fight and die in the city have some idea that links have been established with other settlements, that goods are coming in and going out, that more mercenaries are arriving hungry for work. However, those at the top are working hard to establish greater and stronger links. Ships have already begun to create a trade network with the Northern Federation of Africa as well as European market towns. But Trade Island has scouts and agents who are setting things up for future profits. Word is spreading of a place where goods from everywhere are pouring in and can be sent out to anywhere else – not a true statement, and yet if enough believe it, maybe it one day will be.

There are a number of world powers, ranging from the Order of Mechanised Tyranny, to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, to the mutant army based at Constantinople, and there are lesser forces such as the militarised people at the Carpathian Mountains and the Coalition of the South. While to many people around the world the tale of Trade Island is just that, to those who run such organisations, they know it is much more. Or, if they really have fingers on the pulse of the world, they know it exists, where it is and who to talk to. This means that the business families, and others like the Demon King and the Enchantress, have a strong insight into the workings of the world. To them, to others in power who use it to search out and study their rivals, the world isn’t such a big mystery. Trade Island is a major factor in bringing leaders together.

Of course, it won’t work as well on a global scale as it does in the city’s local environment. There things are more stable. Fewer components, fewer variables, and a more balanced playing field. The mutants and the machines and the monsters sit around the city, and the humans clutter around it, and the families and gangs and others thrive within, and no one can try to take over without facing the full wrath of everyone else. Not so around the world. Too many power-hungry beings. Too many risks and unknowns. So while Trade Island has brought people together, often in secret, it has created potential conflict as well. Now powers are even more aware of each other. Secret pacts can be made. Plans are being concocted. As Trade Island furthers its own ends and pushes commerce out into a war-weary world, others are more than ready to spy out weaknesses and prepare to attack. Eventually. After they have gained more resources, of course.

Who Knows What in Trade Island

The city of Trade Island is a pool of chaos to those who don’t understand it. Within its limits, gangs war through the streets, business families corrupt and manipulate, and various other factions either fully engage in these same activities, or simply try to sneak by their opponents.

If the Medici family don’t have you assassinated, the Draculas might have you impaled as a warning to others. If the Spartans don’t hit you head on and destroy your organisation using both physical and financial warfare, then the Tudors could simply buy you out completely. You might end up caught between Leopold’s gang and the Hussars, who they overcame to take top rank in the city. You could cross path with the Pagans, wielding magic and weaponry to repay any wrong. If you’re really unfortunate you’ll be out walking around under a full moon and hear the maddened howl of Chimera nearby. Then again, maybe you need to hire mercenaries, in which case you might need advice from a veteran merc like Roadblock, or have to deal with Stonewall Scummer, seeing as so many of them frequent his Rough House. Need weaponry? See Warlock. Need a place to stay? Try the Picket Pocket, but bear in mind it is run by hobgoblins.

The Enchantress runs many things, more than most know, and is the power behind Mayor Phil. The Demon King resides outside yet has a lot of influence in the city as members of his court visit on a daily basis. A large gleaner nest is not too far away, yet Ravenous and a collection of his vile people have dug out a smaller home in Trade Island, trying to fit in by offering their services as killers. The Graveyard is where bodies are disposed of, and where ghouls reside, while the Docks are showing promise as trade with far off places across the sea begins to develop. Don’t forget there is a machine nation residing to the north that keeps its distance even as it trades with them. Also, perhaps most importantly, there is a large mutant population, descendants of those who once drove the humans onto the island en masse. They have a president, yet power truly resides with General Bracken and the army, which leads to some fleeing to Trade Island. Former soldiers often end up joining the Ronin and earning their livelihood as mercenaries.

This is skimming over the surface when it comes to Trade Island. No mention has yet been made of the Ottomans, the Raptors, Red Benedict, Bulldozer, the Buccaneers, Spook, Loki, the Peelers, Gunman, Brubaker, the Accursed, Guile, the Vault, Rose, Calculus, the Khans, Scaloni, the Kusonokis, Steiss, Demetrius. There are thieves, mercs, assassins, traders, spies, hunters, bodyguards, warriors, tricksters, crafters, schemers. Some are mutants, others monsters, most human or something like it, and one cyborg and one robot. That is, as far as any know.

So who knows this? Who knows the difference between hiring Ronin from hiring a bunch of fighters at the Rough House? Who can tell you who to speak to when dealing with a business family, or to seriously avoid in a gang? Who knows what is going on, being sold, being stolen, being planned, being carried out?

Well, there are a select few who have their finger on the pulse of Trade Island. It could come as a surprise, but none of them are from among the rich and powerful. No, it is those who live and walk the streets of the city, who talk to people and listen to conversations, that have enough awareness of the whirling, fluctuating ways of the island.

One of these we have mentioned and that’s Stonewall Scummer. He grew up on the streets of Trade Island and claims to know everything going on everywhere. This could well be true. He has spent so long with his ear to the ground – metaphorically speaking only of course – that he has come to understand the city like few others. He built the Rough House so mercs and assassins could hang out together. It was such a simple and obvious move that it surprised others no one had thought of it before, but no one had. Hired killers still loiter on street corners and can be found at taverns they reside in, but the Rough House has come to be the prime place to be. There is even a pecking order, with the top ranked mercs sitting on the upper floor. Scummer has made himself a valuable middle-man, who can pick out the best to hire for various jobs. He also will hold back work or hand out high paying jobs for a reward in return. Scummer is in no way to be trusted. But he is pretty upfront with this, so much so people tend to sigh and shake their heads rather than get angry. Scummer represents Trade Island, in many ways. If you have a use, work is there, but if you can be used and cast aside, get ready for the fall. You need to keep your wits sharp and your skills honed. Scummer does. He knows information others want kept secret. He knows deals people are making. He is despised but respected, detested but tolerated, and mistrusted and yet one of the first people go to in order to find out what the hell is really going on.

But he isn’t the only one. Warlock is another we have mentioned and he also has his insider information. He is a cyborg but he was a child here too. He ended up being sold to a sect and converted, and later, after his sect had been destroyed, he returned to his home, ready to make weapons. There was a lot of suspicion when a cyborg came into the city, many calling him a spy, yet his history with the place and his craftsmanship meant that soon need outweighed distrust. If there is one thing always in demand in Trade Island, it is weaponry. The best suppliers are the business families, but their products are expensive. Warlock makes his weapons with care and skill, and a creator’s love for creating, therefore he gives his products out at much lower cost. Many mercs, gangsters and others want him as a friend. Warlock values people. This could be an act as he spies on the inhabitants, yet his past suggests he is sincere. He admires courage, honesty and integrity, and he always enjoys seeing his work in the hands of skilled fighters. If people want to kill each other, that’s their business. Warlock won’t judge, he also doesn’t gossip. So people let things slip around him. Sometimes he can read the signs, such as an increase of sales to certain people is a warning that a fight is on the way. Warlock has been known to alert people on his good side, but he can also be talked into revealing a little info if a deal can be made. Money isn’t his thing, but even a lone cyborg understands the importance of favours.

We have also hinted at someone but not named him. Previously, the Picked Pocket was brought up, and the fact it is run by hobgoblins. The hobgoblin in charge is Grabbit. It is he and his family that run the establishment, with others of their kind coming and going, working and stealing. Hobgoblins are everywhere in the city. No, they really are. So much so they become part of the background. They are infamous thieves and mischief makers, and many don’t take them seriously. This is a mistake, especially with Grabbit. If a hobgoblin wants to work at his place – which means earning some money, likely stealing from customers, and possibly hearing some interesting information – then they have to tell him something. People think hobgoblins don’t pay attention. Well, they don’t much, but when there’s so many scampering here and there, they will pick up the odd useful whisper. Grabbit wants these. Anything heard in his place is reported in too. He may be a hobgoblin, but he’s no fool. He is more calm, more composed, more sure of himself. So to those who consider him, Grabbit is a very useful source of knowledge, although he isn’t cheap and he’ll know if you cheat him.

An odd individual is Thumbs. He is a low ranking human criminal and is also locked up in prison. There are several of these squat, solid buildings, and they are pretty full due to a constant rotation. Crime is common place, so the police barely put an effort into stopping it. After all, they could get killed. However, some sense of order has to be kept, so the lowest of the low in the crime world often get picked up and banged up. More important ones get nabbed from time to time as well, yet merely as a show. For instance, one of Leopold’s main killers is Mueller, a psychotic super-soldier, and his antics have meant the gang boss handed him over to be detained for a time – partly to keep a lid on things, partly to stop his lackey from causing more trouble. Hobgoblins get arrested and put in too, yet no human has an idea if they ever catch the right one and often they walk out as they please. Grabbit has done time and let another take his place after he got bored. But Thumbs, he went into prison a nobody and became a king. He runs his prison, wearing his necklace of thumbs taken from opponents. Whether his sentence is up or not is unknown as he has no intention of leaving his home. Other criminals come and go, and he talks to most, and sometimes they are angry enough or fed up enough to blab more than they should. Thumbs knows things, and he knows how to get things out of people too. He may be just a human, but humans, mutts and lesser monsters are what frequent the prisons, so he has enough viciousness to intimidate those in his realm. If the word cannot be found on the streets of Trade Island, then the prisons are a good bet, and Thumbs has been in his one long enough to establish a ring of contacts.

Finally, there is Bulldozer. A mutant with big hands and a mighty punch. He is a simple gangster and not even a challenger to Leopold. No, he is on the bottom rung in fact, yet he is the emperor of the bottom rungs. His gang is many, made up of mostly poor humans and other mutts, and he has many low level gangs too small to stand alone as affiliates. The top gangs – Leopold’s, Red Benedict’s, Chimera’s, the Hussars, the Raptors, etc – have powerful beings to make them a serious threat. Bulldozer relies on sheer numbers. Officially, the Hussars are the biggest gang, but then no one takes the mob at the bottom seriously. Bulldozer has dozens of people who grew up in Trade Island under his command, and from all over the city. They will have relatives who work in taverns or warehouses. Some will know members of the police. Some will even have jobs themselves, perhaps at the Docks or possibly the Vault, although the only bank in Trade Island has high levels of security and scrutiny. Still, Bulldozer knows that plans are made high up, but they still need grunts and goons at the lowest level to get things done. He may seem to be a simple but strong thug, and yet little is going on within the city that he won’t get at least some hint of.

Stonewall Scummer, Warlock, Grabbit, Thumbs and Bulldozer all live at the bottom end of society in Trade Island, and that’s why they know what is going on. Mercs converse, either in the Rough House or when buying tools for a job. Hobgoblins go unnoticed. Humans and mutts witness the daily goings on and report in. Obviously there is much even they cannot know. The Enchantress has schemes underway few have an idea on. The Pagans have their own inner strife that no one beyond their ranks has even a clue about. Secrets can be kept. But when you need to know something, your best bet is to go and ask one of these five. Be careful, they’re all dangerous and some are outright treacherous, but if one of them doesn’t know the answer, then another most likely will.

In the highly rare event that not one of them has any info on a certain activity, group or person, then you don’t need to worry because you will be dead soon. You just stumbled onto something incredibly top secret and chances are one of them sold you out. Expect a visit from a top assassin any moment. Most likely Spook. If you’re lucky, you won’t know about it until she glides through the wall and shoots you twice in the head. Many never do.

This short introduces Trade Island, as well as the Accursed:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/598771

The Accursed

There are four of them walking across the ravaged land, spaced out, yet clearly a group.

The first of them is Shade, a human male; an apt name as he is dressed in black and has skin colour of the same. He belongs to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, a society of assassins, or he did before he failed in a mission. Those of the Sect never fail, at least that is their claim, so he was cast out. In fact he was sentenced to death, except he killed his executioner in their deadly duel. Now he must make his own way by his skill and cunning.

He met Grim when under attack by ghouls, the overly large human waylaying into the monsters with aggression and gusto. At first, Shade thought he had come to rescue him, yet it turned out Grim was merely hungry. He fed on monsters. Grim was part human, if not completely. He had been raised by brutes, taken as a baby by a couple who had just lost theirs. Fed on his mother’s milk, he had grown to their size and with their strength, but the others of the tribe saw him as an abomination and eventually killed his parents. Grim had escaped yet swore revenge on all monsters, and since then he not only butchered them, but ate them too, dead or alive.

The third was a deemi, a monster, yet Grim knew better than to start trouble with such as her. Scynthia; deemi liked to take human female names and distort them. Except her kind were not females. They looked like women – beautiful, voluptuous women – yet had skin and hair of abnormal colour and tone, and their true nature was hidden within. Using these forms, they seduced humans and then killed them, devouring their souls too. So had Scynthia, up until meeting a man she had fallen in love with. Her sisters had ordered his death. Eventually she had complied, but had let his soul fly free and so had been expelled.

Shade and Grim had come across the lone deemi and attacked, yet she had eluded them using her kind’s deceitful magic. Later the pair had met more deemi and, amid the luring speech, they had revealed the tale of the outcast. Shade and Grim, escaping their clutches, had gone after her, found her and then persuaded her to join them; they were fighters, she could be the magic-user. Scynthia had agreed.

The trio had become four one morning when a hobgoblin had begun walking with them and wouldn’t leave no matter how many times they chased him away. Short, hunched, quick and tricky, Deg was like all his kind and no one wanted them around because they were always where they shouldn’t be, stole whatever they could and had an almost helpless desire to mess things up. Still, the three had nothing to steal or ruin.

They were four outcasts together. The Accursed, Shade had joked: a biblical term, as in cursed from the land and from people. None of the others understood the meaning but agreed that the name was suitable and, while none said it, they wanted a name for their quartet. It bound them together when nothing else did. They were four loners, which made them strong as a group, only that left a tension; none could take charge for too long and all kept an eye on each other. Especially Deg.

“There we are,” Shade said, stopping on a ridge. Before him was the coast, near the horizon, but within it was an island and it was covered with life. “That’s Trade Island.”

“So that’s where we get jobs,” noted Grim with a grunt.

“And with jobs come food,” Shade assured him with a grin. That was how he had persuaded the abnormal man to come along. As a member of the Sect, he had taken work here and so headed to it instantly, determined to survive on his own. But a creature like Grim had more basic aims, as well as many uses.

“But what jobs will we get here?” wondered Scynthia, stopping alongside them, her voice smooth and eloquent. Her kind strutted around naked, after all, their fabulous forms were their clothing. But since her exile, she had come to hate herself and so, fortunately for the three males, she now wore a long piece of velvet with ends hanging down her front and the middle coiling down her back. “You are an assassin, we are not. What is for us in this place?”

“Plenty,” Shade replied, his look not just on the island but also the settlements about it. He knew there were more nearby; he wasn’t the only one ever attracted here. “There are all manner of beings: monsters, humans, mutants, even a machine nation to the north that trades through the city, if no machines come. No one wants them to. There are business families and gangs. There’s a powerful devil-beast to the south that calls himself the Demon King. With our combined skills, there will be no end of work.”

“He’s right,” chirped a voice and Scynthia looked down in disgust before yanking her drape from Deg’s admiring claws. The hobgoblin hopped away and pointed to the city. “There’s lots of my people there, we work in every place, even run some. I’ll soon tell everyone how great we are.” His speech was as quick and restless as everything else was about him.

“Lots of hobgoblins,” remarked Grim and turned to Shade. “You sure we should go there?”

“Don’t worry, the humans run Trade Island. But don’t trust anyone.”

“Never do,” confirmed Grim.

“Smart,” said Shade with a chuckle. He looked at Scynthia. “You still in?”

“I might as well come, yet your plan seems too vague. You persuaded us to join you and come all this way to this place, and what struck me was your intent. You had a definite plan.” Scynthia’s gaze was locked on the assassin’s.

“Bounty hunters,” Shade revealed. The rest frowned. “When I was here before, I took interest in the law enforcement, as I would, and noticed a big problem. The humans run the island and enforce their laws, in a fashion, but because of the precarious situation, with all the various races packed around it together, none wants to start a fight. So if a criminal gets off the island they’re fine. That is, unless someone hires us to bring them back.”

“There’s a lot of crime here?” ensured Grim.

“Overflowing,” Shade assured.

“That is actually a superb plan,” admitted Scynthia. “But how do we get established as bounty hunters?”

“We go see the mayor,” Deg cut in before Shade could answer and he nodded, glaring at the hobgoblin now beside him. “By the way, I like your plan too, and agree to join you.”

“None of us asked you to come,” snapped Scynthia.

“You don’t need to ask, I’m here to help,” Deg reassured her, hooking thumbs in the straps of his backpack. She scowled.

“Let’s go,” called Shade, heading on, “and Grim, don’t eat anyone.”

“Yeah, be good,” Deg added, now behind Grim, jumping to slap his rear. He snarled and swung for the hobgoblin, but missed, so stomped on to follow Shade. Scynthia followed too, with graceful, light steps. Deg kept pace at a distance.

#

Trade Island had got its name by being just that. While the rest of the world was tormented by bloodshed and horror, here was where the various sides had learned to work together.

When civilisation had collapsed, a mutant army had come here. Humans had crowded onto this island for refuge, then fought their enemy across the water. Bridges were destroyed, as were buildings, but the mutants couldn’t get across and the humans offered peace. They proposed that if the army ceased they could trade, they had resources to offer, and the mutants saw their logic; monsters had gathered and machines were near. Conflict only weakened them for the rest. In time, though, the other groups joined in the trading, also seeing the advantages. Then more beings came from elsewhere, seeking the area’s growing prosperity as well as its safety.

The island was now covered with buildings, some tall structures, others squat; all kinds of people and creatures lived here and so the settlement varied too. In its midst was a small, simple dome, which was the mayor’s home and office. The mayor of Trade Island was a figure of authority; he organised and oversaw the place’s inhabitants. However his influence was, in truth, very limited; there were others here who had real power. Even so, he was the person the Accursed needed to see.

Mayor Phil looked from his desk at the strangers before him. The man who met his gaze reeked of lethal ability. He had moved like a killer, sure and silent, although he carried no weapons. He certainly dressed like one: his black clothes varying in texture and shading, all strong yet also supple, perfect for both movement and protection. His own form matched it exactly; lean but muscular, and he never twitched or lost focus. That wasn’t his most distinguishing feature though – his all white eyes seemed to blaze from his black face.

Then there was the abnormal man. He was huge! His thick, hairy arms swelled with muscle whenever he moved them; he looked like he could lift the large desk Phil sat at with ease and then devour it. Those teeth! Irregular, sometimes broken or sharp, but they all appeared thick. His black hair flowed across his shoulders and down his back, while his large beard was tangled and gritty. Phil recognised the thick hair of brutes that made up the man’s sleeveless tunic and leggings and his boots looked like the hard leather skin of vandals. His own skin was white, if grubby and scarred, and in one hairy paw he carried a long-handled cleaver.

The deemi really unnerved him, however. Her deep red skin was so smooth it almost gleamed. Her silver hair hung in curls and glittered whenever she moved her head. She was living proof that wet dreams do come true, except her silver eyes barely glanced at Phil and when they did, it was with scant regard, which was a relief. Those silver eyes, matching her lustrous hair, had the black slits of a hunting creature, while those fangs… Many suspected her kind’s existence in the Shadow World to have seeped through to inspire ideas of sirens and vampires, just as brutes reflected trolls and ogres, and hobgoblins gremlins and, well, hobgoblins.
The hobgoblin…

“Get out of there!” Phil yelled, chasing Deg from a drawer in his desk. The grey hobgoblin hid behind the others as the mayor slammed it shut, once certain nothing was stolen. “So, uh, did you say your name was Shade?” The man in black nodded. “A blunt name. I’m black too, but no one calls me Silhouette or Dark.”

“I’ve got the same accent as you, so I think I’m originally from this land, yet I grew up on the other side of the sea, in a cold land of white people with blond hair. I don’t know why; my family all died when I was very young.”

“But you kept the name?” queried Phil.

“It sounds cool,” stated Shade. “Anyway, it suited me when I was in the Sect.”

“The Sect of Shadow and Steel? I thought you had to be one of them with those eyes but then…” Phil gestured to the other three.

“He got kicked out, they all did,” came Deg’s voice.

“Shut up!” snarled Grim.

Phil looked around. “Get off!” he yelled to the hobgoblin, who was perched on his chair’s back. Again Deg avoided his swipe. Phil looked back at Shade. “But you’re alive? No one leaves the Sect alive.” Shade merely shrugged. “I suppose you want to regain your honour?”

“Not really.”

Phil frowned. “Isn’t the Sect strong on honour?”

“It is, but I failed at that bit,” revealed Shade, but then gave a slow, white smile. “I’m great at killing though.”

“Me too,” added Grim proudly.

“Which reminds us of why we’re here,” Scynthia said to the mayor. He didn’t look back at her, unsure whether the eyes put him off the most or if the rest of her did – the drape of velvet hardly made her modest. “We are offering ourselves to you as bounty hunters. Shade has explained how useful we could be to you. All we need is for you to make us official so we can arrest people, then spread word of us.”

“Well, yes, but I’m not sure how the police chiefs will take this,” pointed out Phil.

“Your seven chiefs are corrupt, everyone knows that,” countered Shade. “But we won’t be under them. You ask us to hunt a criminal down and we will. They won’t be able to stop us. They can get away with things behind your back, yet in front of everyone is where you can act.”

“Well, that’s true,” admitted Phil, liking the idea of these four answering to him. “I’m not sure about pay though.”

“You offer us a price, if we like it we take it,” Grim stated with a big shrug.

“Well, that sounds fair. Still, there will be some dangerous…”

“Look at us,” snapped Scynthia, which the mayor briefly did. “I am an accomplished deemi, he is a deadly assassin, he is, well, a human brute…”

“And there’s me,” cut in Deg.

“…little is beyond our abilities.”

“Well…”

“What do you want?” Shade demanded to know. Phil flinched. “You’re hedging. You want something. What?”

“You know of the Demon King? His son, Prince Dranrog, is here for a visit and recently he went to a brothel. All went fine with his three girls until he became hungry and ate them. Now that means time in prison. We have laws, and all who come here are meant to abide by them,” the mayor hesitated, “pretty much. Only his father isn’t a good loser. He wouldn’t actually intercede as no one wants to start a war, but he won’t let it pass either. We should arrest the prince, yet if we do … if I do … then trouble comes here.”

“However,” said Scynthia, silver eyes narrowing, “if we brought him in, we get the Demon King’s wrath.”

“Clever,” praised Shade. He was also surprised; this man didn’t seem that devious.

Phil looked sheepish as he shrugged. “None of the police will go near the prince, so if you did, not only would we be free of blame, but your role as bounty hunters will be assured.” This made the trio look at each other (Deg was looking out a window).

“What’s your offer?” Shade asked.

“Uh, one thousand gems.”

“Gems?” queried Scynthia.

“Not real ones,” Shade told her. “They use small, spherical crystals of no worth as currency.”

“Like this,” Deg said, producing one from among his many pockets and holding it up for her to see between his hooked nails.

“You mean gleaner droppings?” Scynthia was revolted, as now were the humans. Deg just nodded. Gleaners were vicious, arachnid-like monsters. There was a nest nearby the island; now Phil knew who the bankers dealt with.

“We use credit notes too, for bigger sums,” he added weakly.

“Is that a good price?” Grim checked with Shade.

“Very,” he replied and looked slyly at the mayor. “I doubt you can afford that much.”

“Others will chip in, to preserve law,” Phil responded, convincing none of them. “So, do you agree?” There was an exchange of looks, then nods.

#

“We wait until the prince leaves the island, that way we’re outside the mayor’s authority,” Shade announced.

“We should already be gone to pick the best place for the ambush,” Scynthia argued.

“But we don’t know which way he’ll go. This prince is said to be rash, not the sort we can predict for,” countered Shade. The deemi just nodded; she never conceded defeat in an argument.

The two of them and Grim were sat at a table in the corner of a tavern, the Picked Pocket, a place run by hobgoblins, bizarrely. It turned out many such inhospitable habitats were owned by the lowly monsters, but while theft was common, none were better at passing on rumour or getting it. That was why they were here. Prince Dranrog was far from subtle; each move he made came to them within the hour. They now lived here too. Few risked that much, but it was cheap and the owners had swiftly learned not to attempt trouble with their guests.

Grim looked around at the crash to see a hobgoblin struggling to drag his cleaver away before snatching it back. Lessons didn’t seem to stick with their kind.

“This prince,” the abnormal man began, “he must have an escort. He can’t be walking about alone.”

“Yeah, both him and his father never leave their home without guards,” confirmed Shade.

“What do you know of the Demon King?” Scynthia wanted to know.

“He’s a devil-beast, big even for his kind, strong in magic too, and he’s smart. He likes human politics; that’s why he calls himself a king – he even has a royal court. His son, the princely heir, is an arrogant braggart. He’s not nearly as strong as he ought to be.”

“When you don’t have to achieve, you do not try,” commented Scynthia.

“I’ve noticed that about you,” said Shade. “You train a lot, always getting better.”

“I can no longer live as I once did, luring sustenance to me, so now I must earn it. You should train too.”

“I did enough of that with the Sect. Anyway, I’m perfect.” Grim laughed as he munched on roasted meat of some kind; what, he didn’t care. Shade looked at him. “What’s funny, big man?”

“You’re not perfect; you’re not as strong as me.” He punched his chest.

“Who is?” replied Shade with a grin and got one back.

“I heard the Sect recruits from all over the world,” Scynthia commented to the assassin, resuming their interaction. “But why did they choose you?”

“They don’t choose, they take,” Shade said coolly, but then shrugged. “They grab a handful of youths and put them through a nightmare of training. Those who survive are then able to kill anything, anywhere. It’s made my life interesting.”

“I have no doubt, humans are so brief and bland,” said Scynthia with contempt, but it had a bitter edge – one human had been brief but not bland to her. “So, what other major figures reside in or around this island?”

“There are a few, yet the Enchantress, that’s a name to beware.”

“Doesn’t sound scary,” retorted Grim.

“She isn’t, she’s the opposite.” Shade gestured to all around them, the bustling tavern and the city beyond it. “This was begun by humans, and certain families became rich and powerful. Not long ago a daughter was born to one, the only child of a wealthy couple, and she was beautiful. She grew up pampered and adored. What she wanted was done, and as she grew, she became even more beautiful. She was adored even more, she was pampered more, and she became even more beautiful.

“It went on like that until she became so beautiful, so adored, that to hear her voice is to obey her and to glimpse her is to worship her forever.” Food dropped from Grim’s mouth as it hung open. “I’ve even heard that to look too long at her makes you go mad.”

“Since the Shadow World merged with yours, reality has become somewhat… unreal,” affirmed Scynthia.

“So, does she go round taking everyone over?” wondered Grim.

“No, that would only provoke her rivals to destroy her. Like all the powerful beings here, she has to be careful,” Shade explained. “She stays in her building, running her business, which her parents handed over before their timely accident. With her immense funds she hires whatever she needs.”

“So she could hire us?” Grim checked, wary, but keen.

“She could and not just as bounty hunters. We can perform all sorts of tasks once people know what we can do,” Shade said and Scynthia nodded.

“Nor should we be above a little corruption,” she remarked with a smile.

“That’s the only way to make real money,” confirmed Shade.

“We could steal it,” offered Deg.

“Where’d you come from?” Grim growled at the hobgoblin, who was sitting on a stool at their table. “Where’ve you been?”

“Talking, listening, a bit more,” Deg replied, playing with a handful of gems. As much as the others distrusted and disliked him, he was the only one ‘making’ money and establishing links. “I’ve found out more about the prince. He always has two brutes with him as bodyguards, but he arrived on the island with more: a few harbingers and a deemi.” Scynthia scowled. Grim growled.

“Hey, this is professional, not personal,” Shade warned. Neither replied. “What else do you know?” he asked Deg.

“He’s leaving, went across the Third Bridge just now.”

“Why didn’t you…? Nevermind, we can get ahead of them easily.” Shade rose, urgency replacing anger at the hobgoblin.

“We need to plan first,” Scynthia insisted.

“You’re the one who’s been demanding we get going,” countered Shade.

“Because we needed to set an ambush, but now you know his route, yes?”

“Pretty much. It’s nearly all open, uneven terrain out there. Perfect hunting ground for a small and mobile group like us. So yeah, now I know where he is and what direction he’s going in, I know which way we can go to cut across and be ready for them.”

“Then let’s figure out what we will do when we meet them.”

“I’ll mash the brutes,” declared Grim, “and you can take the deemi.” At this, Scynthia nodded quickly. “You, Shade, can match the harbingers for reflexes so…”

“No, no, that’s all wrong,” cut in Deg, only to receive three glares. “We’re a team, we can’t fight them each on our own. We should combine and help each other out.”

“The vile thing has a point,” admitted Scynthia and Deg grinned. “We have magic, strength, speed, skill. If we pit each attribute against its inferior we will win easily.”

“I suppose,” muttered Grim.

“We can’t fail; this is too important,” Scynthia instructed him. He nodded; he realised that. The deemi looked to the hobgoblin sat next to her and stroked his head, surprising the creature – he only ever got swipes! “Well done, uh…”

“Deg.”

“Well done, Deg. You’ve impressed us and you deserve to be one of us,” she said smoothly and he squirmed in embarrassment, then yelped as she pinched a small ear. “Just remember that you are one of us. I know your kind; you would turn on us at the right offer. If you wish to stay alive, don’t.”

“I do! I won’t!” yelped Deg before rubbing his released ear. Shade and Grim laughed.

“You should know, deemi are only nice so they can hurt you,” chortled Shade.

“It is a lesson for us all,” Scynthia cut in, and their mirth ended. “We are a new alliance, but this one act binds us. We will create enemies and so will need each other. To split will end each of us for certain.” Everyone nodded. “Good, then let’s plan our victory.”

To Be Continued…..