Chapter 1: Sparksburg
Sparksburg is that awkward size between a town and a city, nestled just off one of the busier trade routes - a perfect place for tourism and well under the Baron’s protection, so safe enough to travel to. Sorin plans to stop for a few weeks at most to refuel and maybe pick up some work here and there to boost his coffers - but not too long, a place like this will have it’s own smithies who probably won’t appreciate someone muscling in. If he’s lucky, some of them won’t mind teaching him something. He hasn’t officially contacted anyone here about learning, because he doesn’t plan to stop here long - a bustling tourist city like Sparksburg will have most of the smithies busy with either knickknacks, noble patrons or outsourced work for the local spark. Lord Andrus Dalca if Sorin remembers correctly. Admittedly the last two could be interesting, but neither sparks nor patrons would tend to chance things on newcomers, and Sorin was travelling, not settling down and looking to build up a reputation.
Except when he actually reaches Sparksburg, it’s not really as he expected.
The guards on the gate pull him over, ask his business. They’re pleasant enough about it, but Sorin picks up an undercurrent of worry, of suspicion. Still, they let him through after a cursory inspection of his things. Tell him to keep to Lowtown, not bother those in Hightown unless invited. Give him the address of an inn who might be able to give him information about work.
Lowtown is...well. In the nicest way, it’s a dump. Sorin passes abandoned buildings almost more than he passes inhabited ones. People are around but they don’t stop and chat to each other, and they keep moving constantly. It raises flags. Big ones. True, it becomes less bad as he progresses into the city, but by the time he reaches the inn, Sorin is sure that something is going on here.
Of course, the posters have helped confirm that suspicion. Plastered among faded posters and advertisements, in big block red lettering and thick parchment that’s been coated with something to keep it pristine, are wanted posters for ‘a rogue spark’. There’s no picture, but there’s a short description and reward amount that’s almost ridiculous. It’s also stamped with a seal of Lord Andrei Dalca, not Andrus Dalca.
When he ducks into the inn, the atmosphere is a little better - or at least livelier. People are drinking in groups, laughter in the air. Darts-players congregate round a well-peppered target, and barmaids in fluffy skirts dispense drinks to the crowd. At the back booths a well-muscled man with a mechanical arm laughs loudly as he manhandles a barmaid, who’s eyes are bright with a smile on her face. Behind the bar a more matronly woman banters with customers, dispensing drinks as she does so. Glances flicker towards and then away from Sorin, though a few cast longer glances.
He heads to the bar, smiles at the bartender as she bustles over. She smiles back but it’s tired around the eyes.
“What can I get you?”
“A half-pint, please.”
Sorin slid the appropriate change in coin across the counter. The women eyed it.
“Not from around here, huh?”
“No, just passing through. I was hoping to pick up some work whilst I was here, though.”
“What’s your trade, handsome?”
“Uh. I’m a blacksmith? I also do farrier-work for horses - “
The woman snorts and her eyes crinkle as real amusement crosses her face.
“Well there’s not many horses left now that - “
A tense moment. Eyes turn to the bartender, hands grip tighter to tables, to drinks. Catching herself, she continues.
“- now. But in terms of blacksmithing, we’re short a few. Talk to Shackleton. Big guy at the back, mechnical arm.”
Sorin tips his drink in thanks, and sips it thoughtfully. It looked like he might be staying here a bit longer - or a bit shorter - than initially planned. Depending what was happening, it seemed like it’d be another case of messaging someone. His face twitched, but he didn’t allow the scowl to form.
Mug drained slightly, enough so it wouldn’t spill over the sides, he picked his way across the room to Shackleton. On seeing him approach, the larger man gently deposited the lady who was sprawled across him onto her feet.
“Catch you later, Marie. Give my best wishes to Frank and the kids.”
The barmaid smiled and nodded before collecting a few empty mugs and ducking behind the counter.
Shackleton smiles back and when he turns to Sorin he is still smiling but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. There’s a wariness there, even as he extends his mottled arm for a handshake. Sorin takes it, feels the calluses that match his own grate against the rough skin of his palms.
“Shackleton, though I go by Shacks for short. Reckon old Marie sent you over about Blacksmithin’, eh?”
Sorin nods, offers a smile of his own, and meets Shacks’s gaze without flinching.
“Sorin, and yes.”
“Excellent. A pleasure to meet you. I used to be the main blacksmith around these parts before..well.”
Shackleton waves his mechanical arm in the air in lieu of an explanation, and now Sorin looks closer at it the skin is still raw and puckered at the connecting seam, the shiny pink of healing. It’s a smooth scar though, the line of a blade not a burn. Interesting.
“...so now my forge is lying mostly empty. Got a couple of apprentices in sometimes, but the forge is big enough for you to use it too, and they only do every other day.”
“I’m alright for a forge, I just need somewhere to work with a water source and somewhere where I won’t be stepping on people’s toes.”
The big guy frowns.
“If you’ve already got an agreement with someone to work their forge-”
Sorin shakes his head.
“I’ve got a portable forge.”
The bar quietens again as Shackleton leans forward and speaks in a very different tone.
“You’re a spark?”
“No, though the forge is sparkwork.”
The noise resumes. Shacks shakes his head and breathes out, flesh hand rubbing his metal one. He doesn’t say anything, but Sorin is increasingly concerned.
“In which case, there’s a yard ‘bout half a block away - it’s got a well and plenty of space.”
Shackleton seems almost...curt with him now, the initial friendliness replaced by wariness. Still, he wishes Sorin well, and tells him that he’ll put the word out to those looking for smithwork. Interestingly, he does drop an offhand comment about staying away from Hightown.
Yes, Sorin mused as he trundled down the street with the lava engine in tow, watching the inhabitants scurry away or slip into alleyways as he passed, he was definitely going to have to keep an eye on this town.
Unseen by Sorin, a rat scurries from under the lava engine into an alleyway, where it squeaks frantically as it’s picked up by a cloaked figure. The figure soothes the creature, listens to its report, and places it back down with a morsel of biscuit before melting back into the shadows.
Chapter 2: The Yard, Sparksburg
There's more demand for a blacksmith then one might think.
Sorin half-expected that with the wariness the townsfolk had displayed he’d have no work to do. He couldn’t have been more wrong. He was almost overwhelmed. There’d been a line outside the forge by the second day. A line. For basic (mostly) smithy work. And oh he’d picked up enough coin to fund his travels for a good time, and the information he’d gathered far more valuable. But still. Phew. He was glad for the way it’d gradually tapered off.
As he sat down to continue writing his letter to the Baron, he tapped the pen against his teeth. How to put this. Dear Ser, the townsfolk are terrified of their spark, he appears to be kidnapping them and blaming it on a rogue spark who I’m not entirely convinced actually exists. Also he’s shit at managing a city, and I say this from a place of experience.
Now, to word it so it was formal instead of sounding like it was a letter to Veli. Hm. Thinking of Veli, he should really write to him again. A soft smile graced Sorin’s features as he thought of his partner, before he started to write, pen scratching against the paper. The soft scraping was the only sound for a while, until he heard the sound of the bell at the gate ringing. He’d rigged up the bell shortly after arriving so he could hear when customers entered the yard, rather than risk them surprising him at the forge.
He packed away the writing, and turned just as a cloaked figure entered the yard and dumped daggers on the table in front of him.
“Can you fix these?”
The voice was pitched low - an attempt, Sorin suspected, combined with the figure’s height and breadth, to seem older.
“Let me take a look.”
Sorin drew the daggers towards him and began to examine them. His brow furrowed.
“These are sparkwork.”
The kid in front of him tensed, and there was a strange sound, almost like rattling. Sorin sighed, and leant back, keeping his hands in view.
“Kid, I can’t fix sparkwork, and judging from the attitudes in town currently, you don’t want to be taking them to any smith here.”
“I’m not stupid, that’s why I brought them to the out of towner. And the spark bits work fine, it’s just the balance is off so I overextend when I fight, which leaves me open.”
Sorin didn’t want to think about why a child knew that much about fighting. The letter to the Baron was getting more and more urgent by the minute if the Lord was making child soldiers. But….if he was the one making these daggers, he’d surely fix them for his troops. And looking at the daggers, they looked….well, every spark had a signature, and what little Sorin had seen of Dalca’s work….this didn’t match it. He lifted the daggers, testing the balance. They were a little hilt-heavy, but Sorin suspected that was because of the mechanisms. The blade itself was a strange thing, something he hadn’t seen before.
“I haven’t worked with this metal before. I’m not even sure it IS metal. I wouldn’t know how to help you even if I wanted to arm children.”
The figure exhaled, and rubbed at it’s hidden face sounding beyond tired. The pitch of their face was far more natural this time - and young.
“Shit. Thanks anyway.”
When he held out his hand for the daggers to be returned, Sorin mostly saw bandages, only his fingertips revealed.
“....Kid, why do you need these?”
The figure - the child - stiffens, and there’s that odd rattle again. Sorin really, really hopes that’s a bell or something, an accessory, and not that someone’s been experimenting on children.
“Do you ask every customer why they need weapons?”
“No, but most customers aren’t children who sneak in at dusk with sparkwork daggers that aren’t made by Dalca.”
What was stiff become almost frozen, and Sorin doesn’t have to be a mindreader to know that the kid must be panicking, and is probably considering either fleeing or attacking.
“Breathe. I’m not going to turn you in.”
“-what? Have you seen the amount of gold that asshole’s got on our heads? You’re telling me you’d give that up for some - some - some kid you’ve never met?”
Sorin’s not going to be able to convince him by telling him the truth, so he goes with a half-truth, enough that a frightened, jaded child would believe it.
“I’ll give it up for information. Something is seriously wrong in this city, and you’re the first person I’ve met who seems to know anything about what’s going on.”
There’s a sigh, and the hooded figure seems to make a decision. The bandaged hands come up to pull the hood back, revealing a redhead with some deep bruising round an eye socket, a split lip and a scabbed laceration on his cheek.
He looks no older than thirteen - fourteen at the most. Sorin’s heart clenches in his chest as he takes in the set of the kid’s jaw. He’s seen soldiers with less fire in their eyes than this kid has. What’s been happening in this town that a child - a /child/ for gods sake, would look like this?
“Kid - “
“Dezso then. What’s going on?”
The boy pauses, runs a hand through his hair and tugs on it whilst eyeing Sorin.
“You know that it’s Andrei now?” Then, barely waiting for Sorin to respond, he continues. “Well Asshole-Andrei decided to enact a bunch of new laws. The town’s been going downhill ever since. He tortures and kills anyone who breaks through in his territory, and he’s been experimenting on the citizens. And whilst he faffs about in his lab, the rest of the nobles are gouging us for all they’re worth. That’s not to mention the gangs.”
Sorin revises his estimate of how urgently the Baron’s attention is needed. This whole thing has been a ride from start to finish that’s for sure. But there’s something else going on here, something Dezso’s not telling him. And there’s the issue of the daggers - if they’ve not been made recently, and by that ‘rogue spark’ - Sorin will eat Veli’s hat.
“So why don’t you leave?”
“......we tried. No caravan would take us beforehand, and after….afterwards who’s going to risk their lives for us?”
Sorin keeps his breathing calm, his face passive. He keeps his grip on the table light. He knows if he spooks the boy he’ll lose any chance of helping him - or the city.
“Right. Let’s get you and your sparky friend out the city, and then we’ll sort out dealing with Dalca.”
Sorin stands up, passes the daggers back to Dezso. Or tries to. Dezso is just staring at him, the beginning of tears in his eyes. He blinks them back though, taking the daggers and storing them in that cloak of his.
“This way, Blacksmith.”
“Sorin. It’s Sorin.”
“This way, Sorin.”