“All right, folks,” La’ss’a began. “I say we start out with some small tidbits, nothing specific. I would suggest mentioning that there are more of us in town and another group headed to Athkatla to deal with Sulveig directly—assuming he’s there, of course. I think this will give them the idea that we’re not alone and there is more at work here than just us.”
Kyrian nodded, he hoped sagely. “We might mention what Demaris mentioned to us, that Sulveig might be trying to compromise the Cowled Wizards.”
La’ss’a blinked. “Okay, when did that happen?”
“Oh, um, I overheard her talking to Oren before we split up. I don’t know, I just think that doing anything directly against Sythillis might hurt Tom. The ogre mages seem to keep things organized around here, mostly.”
“I think I know how Sulveig will disrupt the wizards. We experienced it back at the grove. We also know some ogres that had recent dealings with Sulveig and basically folded on his plan when we arrived. They let us escape.”
“You mean the hobgoblins?” Kyrian asked.
“There were ogres, too!” La’ss’a harrumphed. “All big hairy man-beasts look the same to me.”
Sam tapped the table idly with a finger, apparently thinking. Ligeia stretched and yawned. “Well, fascinating as this may be, I think I have some . . . personal ideas. I’ll meet you back at the inn,” she said, and stalked out lazily. A moment after she left, Elice peeked her head around the doorframe.
“Everything all right in there?”
La’ss’a waved to her. “We just need a few more minutes.” Kyrian shrugged, baffled.
“Ah, okay then. If you say so,” Elice retreated again to the other room.
“I guess that’s as good a place to start as any, La’ss’a,” Kyrian said. “We can also offer to pass along anything we learn in the city.”
The three of them stared at the table some more. Finally, Elice peeked back into the room. “Can I come in now?” La’ss’a nodded.
“We seem to be done,” Kyrian said.
Elice turned a chair around and sat down, crossing her arms over the back of the chair. “I was going to offer a suggestion, if you’re interested.”
“We might be,” Sam said. He smiled a bit, softening the words.
“Please, continue,” Kyrian told her, blinking a bit at Sam.
“One of the better places to go get a handle on the politics around here is the fighting pit near the Government building.” Elice grimaced briefly. “I should know, I used to be a pit fighter there. You can pick up some spare cash by betting, or even fighting, if you’re brave enough. Pretty much anyone with any kind of axe to grind shows up there sooner or later.” She shrugged, struggling to look diffident. “It’s just a suggestion. If you want, I can show you around.”
“It couldn’t hurt to mingle with the locals a bit,” Sam said. “Thanks for the tip, Elice.”
Elice grinned, looking pleased with herself. “Hey, I’m glad to help. You have to look out for your old friends in this world, otherwise pretty soon you wont have any and then where will you be?”
Tom waddled awkwardly into the room, his arms full of a large crystal sphere that he chucked unceremoniously onto a shelf. “Customers!” he announced, dusting his hands off and surveying the group with a jovial expression. “Now, what can I do for you folks?”
“I guess we are back to trading information,” La’ss’a said. “I know three things you may be interested in.”
“You made up your minds? Good. I hate dealing with indecisive people,” Tom said. He threw himself into a chair and propped his feet up on the table. “I’m all ears. Well, figuratively speaking.”
“The first thing we can relate concerns our strength in the field. There aren’t just four of us by any means. We have another support group here in town, and a third group on the way to Athkatla.”
“I suppose that’s interesting. What else do you have?”
“We might just know how Sulveig plans to overpower Athkatla’s wizards. They rely on magic, of course, but there is a . . . certain phenomenon that can release psychic energy by draining off magic,” La’ss’a continued.
“Yes,” said La’ss’a. “It’s as good a word as any. It’s a thing that you take to a magic center, it will feed off the energy and create a psychic field.”
“That’s somewhat alarming,” Tom said. “Even so, psychics are so rare that it doesn’t seem tremendously useful.”
Kyrian sat forward a bit. “It also has the potential to change something’s nature from magic to psionic, as happened to me.”
Tom frowned. “So, you could turn a wizard into a psion?”
“I’m not sure,” Kyrian replied. “It’s a painful transition if you fight it, though.”
“Sulveig is a psionicist himself,” La’ss’a said. “I would bet some of his followers are psionic as well. This would benefit his group tremendously. If Sulveig and his allies can tap into it, they could easily outlast the mages.”
“Or incapacitate them outright,” Kyrian added.
Tom shuddered. “Do you mean to tell me he may actually succeed in taking over Athkatla?”
“The possibility exists,” Kyrian affirmed.
“That is . . . worrisome.”
“Only if we fail to stop him,” La’ss’a said, grinning mischievously.
“That’s why we want your help,” Kyrian said.
Tom nodded. “I’m starting to get the idea. So what’s your third bit of information?”
“Well,” La’ss’a began. “We ran into a group of hobgoblins that had recent dealings with Sulveig. In fact, Sulveig left something with them. We took it, but the hobgoblins basically let us do it. They didn’t seem very interested in holding onto it.”
“Say what now? What hobgoblins?” Tom was beginning to look a bit panicky.
“Well, there are fewer of them now,” La’ss’a said.
Kyrian noded. “Their leader is named Magsaid.”
“What, Magsaid?! I know him, he’s a captain under Cyrvisnea just like all the other hob tribal leaders. I would have thought he’d be marching on Athkatla now with the rest of them.”
“Hmm,” La’ss’a said. “So the value of this information seems to have . . . increased.”
“I’ll say,” Tom grumbled. “I’ll have to corroborate some of this, but it definitely makes me think that there are things going on here I don’t know about. That’s bad, by the way. What you don’t know can kill you.”
“Two days ago, Magsaid was still in his stronghold,” Kyrian offered.
“I have people I can send out to check on these things. It shouldn’t take long. Now then, what do you want to know?”
La’ss’a shrugged. “Well, first if we’re going to accomplish our goals, we might want to find someone who wouldn’t mind helping us against Sulveig.”
Kyrian nodded. “Then we can find out exactly what Sulveig is planning, and why.”
Tom considered for a while. “There are a couple of people in town that were wooing Sythillis’ favor before Sulveig showed up. Most notably Dark Mistress Reldrin and those lunatic Thayvians.”
Kyrian swallowed audibly. “Thayvians worshipping Kossuth?”
“I know they have at least one cleric with them.”
“Oh. I . . . encountered them before,” Kyrian murmured.
“You did? Oh, that’s right, they’re staying at the Crimson Road.”
“You may want to update your facts,” La’ss’a said. “There were at least five of them there.”
“It’s hard to tell the Red Wizards and the clerics apart sometimes. I think they have a monk, too.”
“And one of them is hot,” Sam said. Elice kicked him under the table and he copped an innocent look. “What?” She stuck out her tongue at him and then winked.
“Let me make sure I understand . . . Sulveig hurt their influence with Sythillis, then?” Kyrian asked, bewildered.
“Well, Sythillis refused to meet with them, at least. I think . . . they’ve been courting Yoag now instead. But I don’t think they’ve made any progress towards their objective, whatever it is.”
“So who is Yoag?” Kyrian asked even more blankly.
“Sythillis’ gopher. He’s a cleric of some sort, but he’s not entirely an ogre mage. I think one of his parents was a dragon. He’s ugly as sin, in any case.”
“So what can you tell us about Reldrin?” Kyrian asked finally.
“She’s a drow, she’s renting a house here in town with her little harem. Well, heh, I say renting, I think they just came up out of the Underdark in the basement and evicted the former owners. She’s ostensibly some kind of merchant, but I think she’s here to get slaves for the markets down below. She spends most of her time in the fighting pits, watching her consorts beat the snot out of the competition.”
“Are there any other groups?” La’ss’a asked. “Or maybe the better question is, where does your group stand in all this? What do you stand to gain here?”
“Hah, that is a good question. I’m here to see to it that we keep bringing in money, no more and no less. I don’t take sides apart from trying to prevent the sort of chaos that would completely disrupt commerce. Murann is like a gold mine for us. We can bring anything into Amn through this place and not have to bribe guards or take precautions to hide our operations.”
“I see,” La’ss’a said. “You want someone in charge that is agreeable and doesn’t ask too many questions.”
“Exactly. As long as the situation doesn’t devolve into war, I’m not too concerned with the specifics. Sulveig worries me, though. He strikes me as being . . . difficult to deal with. Hmm.” Tom scratched his head. “If you want information on Sulveig specifically, you could always try to suborn some of his own people. He brought the strangest collection of critters with h im on that ship, and they didn’t all leave with him. I’d tread carefully if you plan on trying that, though, you could easily tip your hand before you’re ready.”
“Ship?” La’ss’a asked.
“The ship he arrived in. It’s still in the harbor, I think.”
Sam nudged Elice with his elbow. “It’d be a shame if something were to HAPPEN to it . . .” Elice burst out laughing.
“Can we get some names for these cohorts? Descriptions, even?” La’ss’a pressed. Tom turned to look over at Elice. She tried to get her laughter under control.
“Well, there’s Eztli . . . and Drask, too, I guess. Eztli is a troll, but he’s a weird troll. He’s the pit champion currently. He’s not always trying to feed his face, it’s like he’s got other priorities. Drask is a duergar. He sometimes competes in the pits, but for the most part he keeps to himself.”
Kyrian frowned. “If we take out the troll, we might make a friend of Reldrin, if she’s so invested in the pits.” Elice snorted loudly.
“Yeah, good luck with that. You might want to see him fight first before you go throwing your life away.”
Kyrian was hurt. “I’m just throwing out ideas. Could Drask be the duergar we saw on the way over here?”
“Well, since he’s the only duergar in town as far as I know, yes.” A loud *ding* sounded in the front of the store and Tom cursed.
“Sorry, that’s a customer. I’ll be back.” He rose and vanished behind the curtain.
“If you’re interested in Eztli and Drask, you should just go down to the pits and see for yourselves,” Elice said.
“Is there anyone else?” La’ss’a insisted.
“Not that stayed behind. Sulveig had another duergar he took with him, and this weird woman with spots all over her body. There were a bunch of big toads, too, and a giant bug. Plus a lot of miscellaneous orcs and goblins and so forth. That’s all I can remember, sorry.”
“Big bug? What did it look like?” La’ss’a asked.
“I’m not a bug expert. It looked sort of like a praying mantis, I suppose.”
“Thri-kreen,” La’ss’a announced.
Elice fidgeted a bit. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the ‘thing’ you took from the hobgoblins? Is it anything like the weird ‘thing’ Sulveig gave to Sythillis?”
“I don’t know,” Kyrian said. “What was it?”
“It was some kind of mask that looked like the head of a cat.”
“This piece of info may cost you . . .” La’ss’a began.
“Hey, go easy with her, she’s volunteered plenty already,” Sam said gruffly. Elice smiled at him.
“We know who Sulveig’s old mentor is,” La’ss’a explained. The mentor and Sulveig had a falling-out. Sulveig kidnapped the mentor’s family. We rescued the family.”
“So this ‘thing’ is actually a person?” Elice asked, blinking. “Not what I was thinking at all, then. Sorry.” La’ss’a tugged on Sam’s cloak and whispered into the human’s ear. “I can leave if you want to talk privately again.”
“Nah. I just remembered something from our days at the school.”
Elice smiled a bit. “I’d love to hear all about that later, when you have more time.” La’ss’a looked at her, then glanced over at Sam. Then the little female lizard grinned hugely.
“Let’s head to the pits and watch some carnage!” Sam announced.
“Well, come on, no time like the present,” Elice said. She stood and led the way out to the street. They walked for some time, eventually ending at a large warehouse-like building on the waterfront. It looked like it once had windows, but they were boarded up so firmly that no chink was visible. A husky half-orc stood outside the entrance watching people enter and exit. As Elice approached, he held up a large palm.
“It’s just me, Hideere,” Elice said quietly.
“Ah, Miss Sandy.” The half-orc’s voice was deep, rich, and cultured, more suited to a drawing room than the seedy waterfront. “We have not had the pleasure of your company for some time. These are friends of yours, I take it?”
“Well go right on in. I’m sure Aichezin will be pleased to see you.” Hideere opened the door with a flourish, standing back out of the way. Sam nodded to the half-orc, and went inside, the others following.
Immediately within, a wooden staircase led up to a wide mezzanine, once likely used for storage, now turned into a tavern of sorts. The warehouse floor below was brightly lit, but the mezzanine was dim, offering the security of anonymity to the many diners and onlookers.
In the pit below, a fight was just winding up. An elegant male drow bowed to polite applause as round beetle-like machines rushed into the pit and cleared away what looked like the wreckage of a third machine. A tall, human-shaped machine wearing a suit of clothing strode into the center of the pit and declaimed: “Victory to Dark Mistress Reldrin! There will be a brief recess while the next entertainment is prepared.”
“That’s Aichezin the Machine,” Elice whispered. “He manages the fights.” La’ss’a peered between the bars of the railing to see what might be involved in the fights. It looked simple and straightforward enough, like the proprietor just cleaned out the bottom floor of the warehouse.
Sam snagged a seat with a good view to watch the upcoming battle. The drow warrior climbed up another staircase and joined a group in one of the corners. A woman leaned forward out of the shadows and stroked him like a beloved pet. Her features were dark and haughty, thoroughly drow.
“Have you ever done something like this before, Sam?” Kyrian asked, perching nervously. Elice pointed past him at a surprisingly ordinary-looking human sitting at the largest table in the place. Another large half-orc sat beside him on a heavy iron-bound chest.
“That’s Prak’parit the Oddsmaker if you want to place a bet.”
Sam glanced at Kyrian. “Not this openly, and not this professionally. Mostly, I tried not to die bleeding in the gutter.” Elice started to reach out a hand to touch Sam’s shoulder, realized it might be presumptuous, and buried both of her hands in her lap.
“Athkatla only looks nice from the top,” she said.
“I . . . I’m sorry, I have no idea what to say,” Kyrian stuttered.
“Not everyone gets to grow up in a nice home with a loving family. For some of us, there’s only the street,” Elice explained.
“It’s not like it ever did happen, and you never tried to kill me,” Sam said, shrugging.
Kyrian shivered. “I know I’m fortunate to have what I have. I wish it could have been yours.”
“Don’t make wishes like that, uh, Kyrian, right? You never know what might happen. We all have our good times and our bad times. I pity those whose good times are all in the past. I figure mine are still in the future.”
Sam nodded. “You’re a good kid, Kyrian, don’t wish you were like me.”
“That’s not what I meant—not exactly, anyway . . .”
Below, in the lit circle, the machine-man strode out to the center again. “Our next fight pits Dark Mistress Reldrin’s champion Irix against the current pit championi, Eztli!” Another drow warrior edged his way nervously into the circle, scanning the shadows. With shocking speed, a troll wearing a white tunic decorated with feathers and a chain shirt knuckled his way out of the darkness. Aichezin the Machine raised one clockwork arm and brought it violently downwards.
With a flash of psychic energy, Eztli was instantly on Irix, connecting with both claws and a mouthful of teeth. Irix slashed the troll viciously with his sword. Blood sprayed everywhere and Irix fell to his knees. From the corner, a loud angry curse cut through the noise of the crowd.
“Coward!” the Dark Mistress shrieked as her champion tried desperately to catch her eye. Aichezin the machine called out from his post on the floor.
“Irix wishes to yield . . .”
“NO!” Reldrin screamed. “No yield! It’s just a troll!”
“Heh, JUST . . .” Sam commented. Below, Eztli backhanded Irix in the chest and the dark elf skidded a good ten feet. Then, weirdly, the troll crouched down and waited for his opponent to stand again. Prak’parit the Oddsmaker leapt to his feet.
“Hey! Hey! What are you doing!? You know the rules!”
Kyrian blinked. “She was right. That doesn’t seem like very trollish behavior. That was a lot of psionic power, too. Biofeedback, Hammer, Thicken Skin . . . that first move was a Psionic Lion’s Charge.”
Eztli rumbled, “He yielded,” and knuckled away into the darkness again.
“DAMN it!” Prak bellowed. A few people presented to collect their winnings and he turned them over with poor grace.
“I don’t get it,” Kyrian asked. “The troll won. Did the Oddsmaker think he’d kill the drow or something?”
“I don’t know,” Elice said. “Bets are straight win/lose, so it shouldn’t matter to Prak either way. It’s weird that he’d yell at the champion, Eztli is a big moneymaker for him.”
Aichezin reclaimed the floor. “Irix will not be accepting any more challenges tonight. However, there are still openings should anyone wish to issue a challenge at this time.”
“Do they have any lower tier fights? That’s a skilled troll.”
Elice shrugged. “There are fights at any level, and you can enter as a group if you like. Aichezin won’t let you challenge someone he judges to be weaker than you are, but it takes him a few fights to really get a feel for that sort of thing.” She suddenly waved at someone in the crowd. “Hey, DEEN!”
A halfling in blackened leather armor with an enormous mop of curly blond hair atop his head came running towards the group. He was followed shortly afterwards by a human in Calishite desert gear.
“Hi, Elice!” the halfling said, looking around. “New friends? I’m Deen! This is Dunloch! We work for Silver Tom, don’tchaknow . . .”
“Well met,” Kyrian said. Sam nodded briefly, keeping an eye on the proceedings below.
“I’m the best catburglar around these parts,” Deen continued, “and if you’re looking for an assassin, you could hardly go wrong hiring my buddy Dunloch, here!”
“Deen!” Elice hissed. Sam blinked slowly and turned to give the halfling his full attention.
“I, ah, I’ll certainly keep that in mind . . .” Kyrian stammered.
“What? come on, Elice, you have to advertise to beat the competition nowadays!”
“You could kill the competition and save time,” Sam said.
“Nah, people don’t like that for some reason. Plus, we don’t like to kill and rob people if we’re not getting paid.”
“Fair enough,” said Sam. “It seems like a growth industry these days, anyway.”
Below, Aichezin the Machine bellowed, “We have a challenger! A new contender comes to the pit tonight, La’ss’a the lizardfolk, against two hobgoblin fighters! Place your bets now!”
“What the . . .?” Kyrian asked. Everyone looked around. La’ss’a was, indeed, missing. Kyrian and Sam both stood and went over to Prak. The Oddsmaker’s smile was full of teeth that seemed just a little too . . . sharp. Kyrian found himself struggling to find his own smile.
“What odds can I get on the lizard to win?”
“I’m giving odds of 2:1 against the lizard. That means that if you bet one gold piece, you get two. If she wins, of course.”
Sam dropped 10 platinum on the desk. “The lizard,” he said. Prak busied himself with collecting Sam’s money and writing out a betting chit. Kyrian offered cash and Prak repeated the process.
“The lizard a friend of yours? I hope you won’t be disappointed.”
“Oh, she’s full of surprises,” Sam said.
The two hobgoblins made their way into the pit, but La’ss’a was nowhere in sight. Aichezin didn’t seem the least perturbed, it simply raised its arm and brought it down again. “Begin!”
The hobgoblins looked around nervously, then La’ss’a dropped from the shadows onto one’s back. He squalled as she dug in her claws, discharging a psionic power at the same moment. She dropped to the ground and the hobs moved to flank, one gashing her badly with its sword. Then La’ss’a grinned, and did a very good impression of a snarling, clawing whirlwind. One of the hobgoblins fell to the ground, unconscious, and the other stumbled back.
“Yield! Yield!” La’ss’a spat his earlobe out cheerfully. Kyrian threw his arms around Sam and hugged the human, who stared at the young half-fey as though Kyrian had sprouted another head.
“Victory to La’ss’a the Lizardfolk!”
“Damn it, Chez, you call that a challenge?!” Prak howled. Below, the machine shrugged with a great clanking noise.
Below, La’ss’a glanced behind her as she was ushered out of the pit. The upright hobgoblin limped away, but his unconscious companion lay unattended. The shadows swelled and thickened, then suddenly lashed forward. The hobgoblin’s body arched in pain, then went limp in death. Then it was dragged from sight.
“I wonder who I could sucker him into matching me with?” Sam thought aloud, gesturing to his lack of weapons.
“You fight with your bare hands, now? Did you become a monk and not tell me?” Elice asked. Sam grinned at her.
“Something like that.” La’ss’a rejoined them at the table, still trying to worry the last few bits of hobgoblin meat out of her teeth. Without warning, Hideere appeared beside her.
“When you have a moment, Eztli would like to speak with you.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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