Episode 001: The Baker's Sister Part 2

Part Two – the Ascend

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The crowd thinned out as we journeyed further from the centre. Avi leading the way on horseback helped with clearing the road – no one was going to stand in the way of someone on a mount, noticeable noble or not. By the early afternoon, we were out of the city, at the foot of the hill where Makinah said her sister’s bakery was upslope.

      As we ascended the slope, however, there was a strange, noticeable chill going on in the blazing sun.

      “Nothing’s open,” I said.

      “Prayers?” Sunset asked.

      “Nothing big today,” our lone male companion, Jalil, spoke up.

      “Never thought you’d be looking for shopping opportunities on the way to a job,” Birdsong asked.

      “It’s not that,” Avi said, her words punctuated by the clip-clop of her horse, “No opened shops in the middle of the day means no human traffic, which also means there’s no one to ask if they’ve seen anything.”

      “Speak of the devil,” I said after looking ahead to catch my breath. I pointed further ahead, with Avi turned towards the same direction.

      A single shop with its doors still open.

      Referring to Makinah’s slip of paper, then to the layout of the shops ahead, Avi redirected her horse.

      “Time to ask questions, then,” she said.

#

As we neared the shop, Avi dismounted in a single movement, doing little to stir the two men at the shopfront, surrounded by their tea, hunched with all their attention directed to the chessboard between them. Between the time of Avi’s arrival and our catching up, I only noticed a single movement between the two – the gentleman on the right moving his rook across the board.

      Avi cleared her throat.

      Even that did little to call the attention of the two men, as they slowly turned towards the source of the sudden shadow cast over their chessboard, only to jump (as Makinah did) as they laid eyes on Avi’s striking silhouette, made grander as the sun shone blindingly behind her.

      “Good sirs,” she greeted them.

      Taking a moment to gather themselves, both men stood up quickly, straightening their robes and headgear, the gentleman on the left doing so just that much faster. Bowing slightly at us, the left gentleman spoke first.

      “Esteemed ladies, and sir,” he nodded towards Jalil, “How may my humble shop assist you today?”

      Though the inner shop stood dark against the brighter shopfront, we could see various furnishings in various stages of completion and finishing, either standing or laid on its side on the floor, or stacked haphazardly on the shelves lining the walls.

      “Thank you,” Avi started, “We’ve come after hearing of this particular bakery up the hill – but there seems to be nothing going on this side of town. Do you happen to have any idea why?”

      “It’ll be good if they’re open,” Birdsong chimed in, “We heard they have great wares!”

      Left Gentleman’s attempted salesman grin faded and his fingers tightened their grip against each other. Hunching his shoulders, seemingly involuntarily, Left Gentlemen shifted his eyes over us and towards where Makinah pointed out her sister’s bakery is said to be. Then, turning back to us, he paused before he answered.

      “The lady and her husband,” he started, “They are not from around these parts, but they keep to themselves. The lady bakes very well too.”

      “Have you seen them over the last two days?” Avi continued.

      Both of them shook their head.

      “But to be honest,” Right Gentleman said, “Nothing good has happened since the arrival of that new Market.”

      “Market?”

      Both gentlemen cast a glance at each other, as if trying to have a conversation between their eyebrows, before Right Gentleman turned back and pointed to what seemed to be like a hulking building in the background of the shophouses lining the upward slope.

      “That market moved in not long ago, but its aura is very…” he explained, “… sinister. Ever since it came, we have heard cases of people going missing in the night, or creatures coming to feed on the homeless and food left on the street.”

      “Creatures?”

      Left Gentleman gestured across the roads – clean, bright, with hardly a speck of trash along the walkways, compared to their counterparts in the city, where one almost always had the risk of stepping into fetid water or slip on a piece of trash in the hustle and bustle of activity.

      “It’s out of necessity,” Left Gentleman said, “When the last man went missing, we started clearing the streets so that those creatures have nothing to scavenge in the middle of the night.” He shifted his attention to the rest of the shops, “And closing early.”

      “Someone went missing lately?” Avi asked.

      “Not the baker, or at least it wasn’t announced to be her or her husband,” Left Gentleman explained, “It was a beggar – the one with the many body sores. No one wanted to go near him, maybe except the baker.”

      “Asking for trouble, if I’d say so,” Right Gentleman said, “People say that the baker has been helping the beggar with medicines or concoctions to cure his sores – nothing good can come to people who think they can get rid of such ailments overnight!”

      Left Gentleman shut his friend up with a coincidental clearing of his throat.

      As he said that, Right Gentleman quickly nodded and started clearing their tea cups and chess pieces. Taking his cue from his friend, the Left Gentleman bowed again and continued, “Now, please excuse me, I will need to close up soon.”

      “Thank you for your information, sir,” Avi finished, turning back to her horse.

      “Wait,” Left Gentleman called after us, before retreating to the back of his shop and re-emerging with what looked like a wooden toy and a pair of shoes for toddlers. Holding them out to Avi, he said, “If you do see the baker again, please hand these to the family. They have been kind to the neighbours and we heard that they have just got a new baby.”

      Pocketing the gifts, Avi nodded again and signalled us away.

#

We trudged up for another half an hour or so. And despite it just being the early afternoon, the sky seemed to grow darker the closer we got to the bakery and by logic, the Market. Stopping in front of the shop, a double-storeyed shophouse with large but dusty shopfront windows – a barrier to the darkness within the building.

      “This is it,” Avi said.

      “This is it,” Birdsong affirmed.

      While they stood around the empty shop, perhaps trying to find a way in, I noticed a rusty red stain dragged erratically into the now-closed door. Keeping a close eye on the stain patterns, I tracked the stains to a gutter alley at the side of the shop, watching as it clustered and merged into a splattered stain of possible viscera and blood bled from violent mauling.

      “This is ridiculous,” Sunset declared, “I’m going in.”

      “Be on your guard,” I said, coming out from the corner of shop, “We won’t be alone in there.”

#

Author’s Note: The significance of the creatures and scenarios in the nightmare dungeons are explained more in-depth in The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger. You can create your own scenarios and stories in this world by getting the hardcover here, or trying out the game first here.