The day began to dwindle as the pit fights continued. An enormous ogre mage with black, scaly skin and wings put in a brief appearance, bulling his way through the crowd to converse briefly with the Thayvians. The entire group got up and left together.
Kyrian watched them leave. “That must be Yoag,” he observed.
Deen looked over their table. “Well, it’s been entertaining, Elice, but I think I’m going to head back to the shop before it gets completely dark. Don’t want to be out on the street at night if we can avoid it. So, you wanna come with?”
“What’s so bad about nighttime?” La’ss’a asked.
Deen snorted. “Nothing, if you don’t mind being mugged, robbed, and killed. Most of the nasty stuff living here is nocturnal, after all.”
“Can that be . . . arranged . . . here?” La’ss’a asked in what she probably believed was a conspiratorial tone.
“Sure. That’s what Dunloch does, after all.”
“And where would this ‘business’ be transacted?” La’ss’a persisted. “Or, should I say, where can the terms be drawn up?”
“Well, if you want to hire Dunloch and me, and we’re the best, by the way, you should come back to the shop with us. Tom handles all that stuff.” Deen hopped down out of his chair and trotted towards the pit exit. Dunloch rose more elegantly and followed in a swirl of dark robes.
Elice glanced at Sam. “I really should go . . .”
He smiled. “I’ll walk you back. We can catch up some more on old times.”
She smiled back. “That would be nice.” She hooked her arm through Sam’s and they set off together. Kyrian looked at La’ss’a, confused, and the two of them tagged along behind.
“So how did you end up with these people, anyway?” Elice asked after a while, pitching her voice low so that only Sam could hear. He shrugged.
“You know, the usual thing, pick the wrong pocket, get taken in by a powerful mentor, bond with schoolmates. You know how that goes.”
“It’s just that they seem a little odd. But maybe I’m not the one to be pointing the finger about ‘odd’. What happened to bring you all out here? Er, if I’m being too nosy, you don’t have to tell me.”
“I don’t mind. I don’t get a chance to just talk with people much any more. Anyway, our kindly but powerful mentor was attacked by a vicious invader, possibly aided by some of the mentor’s former students. Naturally, I’m driven to revenge. I’ve always been pretty good at revenge.”
“That sounds awful. Maybe I can help you track these people down?” Elice said it with a hopeful lilt to her voice that turned her statement into a question.
“Well, it seems like you already are. See, Nymbus was teaching us all psionics. It turns out I had more talents than I thought and he saw something in me. But now Sulveig has moved in and Nymbus was just in the way . . .”
“That explains a lot. It’s good to know someone is going to deal with Sulveig. He makes Tom very nervous.”
“Let’s hope so, since we’re going to need Tom’s help. Come to think of it, we could use yours as well. Tom seems trustworthy enough, and his needs line up with ours, but I don’t know him like I know you. Can I count on you for advice when we need it?”
“Of course. I’ve been getting a little tired of this city, anyway, maybe I could come work with you instead?”
Sam pondered for a moment, then grinned. “Well, the pay is low, but the danger is high, so that balances out. And, of course, you get al of me as a bonus. We’d be happy to have you along. I would be more than happy to have you along.”
“That sounds like fun. I’m tired of running errands for Tom. He got me out of prison, sure, but enough is enough. It’ll be nice to be around actual friends again.”
“Good. Now let’s go figure out how to steal some stuff and kill somebody.”
The White Scroll was closed, very formally so, with a small sign in the window announcing that fact. Deen casually ignored the sign and went around the building, where he unlocked a door and sauntered inside.
Kyrian looked around at the nearby buildings, whispering to La’ss’a, “Are the elves still following us?” An owl flitted down and landed on the roof above them. A moment later, Jacynth climbed up on the crest of the roof and sat down.”
La’ss’a grinned at Kyrian. “Apparently, they are.”
Tom was surprised when they all walked in. He frantically snatched up an enormous heap of papers, threw them into a chest, slammed the lid, and then sat down on it with a great deal of formality. His smile seemed a bit forced. “So, you’re back! What can I do for you?”
“We need to arrange two things, actually,” La’ss’a said. “The first is that I need to hire a crew for a large ship.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Tom said. “Most of the humans in the city are starving or close to it, they’ll work for potatoes, and a little money can buy a lot of no questions.”
“Well, their new boss will be a little . . . odd. I assume that isn’t an issue, either? They also won’t be coming back to this town, probably ever. But, I promise a huge adventure for those willing to go. Oh, and we only have a couple of days, tops.”
Tom shrugged. “Let’s call it 800 gold for expenses and I’ll take care of it for you. I know people.”
Kyrian sighed. “We should see what everything will cost before we start pooling our cash.”
La’ss’a nodded. “Our second request is more towards these fine folks,” she said, pointing at Deen and Dunloch. “We might need certain doors opened in the near future.”
“I don’t hire my people out without details. I prefer to avoid getting them killed,” Tom explained. “They are very hard to replace, after all.”
“Impossible, you mean,” Deen said, chuckling.
“Nothing’s impossible,” Tom told him. “So don’t go getting a swelled head.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
“What we need is certain doors in the big building at the center of town opened . . . quietly.”
Deen perked up. “The government building? Whoo, now there’s a fun job!”
“We thought it might interest you,” Kyrian said. Tom looked concerned but Deen waved him down.
“We have no problem with you keeping what you find along the way, as long as it doesn’t compromise the job,” La’ss’a said.
“Sure, we’ll do it,” Deen said. “But we have a 500 gold retainer. When do you want to try it?”
“Apiece?” Kyrian asked.
“No, for both of us. If you want us to *fight*, though, that costs extra.”
“And the cost to remove a few guards along the way?” La’ss’a asked.
Dunloch spoke in his gravelly voice. “There’s a sliding scale depending on the difficulty of the removal. Starts at a thousand gold and goes up from there. Plus expenses, of course.”
La’ss’a shrugged. “We can’t move until we have a crew for the ship, so we have time to do some reconnaissance.”
“Anything else?” Tom asked.
“No, I think that’s everything,” La’ss’a said, digging through her bags and piling gold bars on the table.
Elice raised her hand for attention. “Do you guys need a place to stay?”
“We can stay at the old place again, or here . . .” La’ss’a said, looking confused.
“Oh, well, I wouldn’t go back to the Crimson Road if I were you,” Elice said.
“And this is a shop, not an inn,” Tom added.
Kyrian blinked at Elice. “Why not?”
“Let’s just say I’ve heard Hali has a history of doing some unsavory things to his less-powerful customers.”
“Well, if you have another place in mind, that sounds fine to me,” Kyrian said. “I think I’ve had enough luxury for a while.”
“I know a decent place, run by humans instead of, well, you know. It’s not grand or anything, but it’s clean.”
“What do I know?” Kyrian asked.
Elice looked slightly puzzled. “You thought Hali was human?”
“No, he’s some sort of shapechanger. I don’t really know what sort, it’s not like I’ve ever seen him do it, myself.”
“Let’s, ah, let’s look at this place you like,” La’ss’a said after a moment.
Elice led them to a large rambling building not far from the docks. It looked very much as though it had once been a group of connected residences, but the former inhabitants had fled. A small, weary man sat behind a crude wooden table just inside the entrance, watching over a box of keys. Elice put down a few coins and he fished around in the box for a while.
“No, not that one,” she said as he started to hand her a key. “It’s a fair-sized group.” Shrugging, he let her pick the one she wanted. “I like these rooms because there’s sort of a view,” she explained as she led them up the stairs. She tugged Sam with her into a small side room where a narrow window looked over the sea. Selune shed a faint milky light over the water.
“Pretty,” Sam remarked. Elice rested her elbows on the windowsill and glanced at him. From the noises, the others were making themselves comfortable in the other rooms.
“Do you . . . want me to stay?” Elice asked very shyly. Sam reached out and put a hand on her back, between her shoulder blades.
“Certainly,” he said.
“So what’re we going to do today?” La’ss’a asked, tearing another bite from her breakfast. “I’m going back to the pits to talk with Eztli a little more.”
“Elice and I are going to take a walk, scope out the city a little more,” Sam said.
“I’d like to find out what happened to Ligeia,” Kyrian said. “She probably just went back to the Crimson Road, but I’d like to be sure. Shall we meet back here around lunchtime?”
“Sounds good,” La’ss’a said.
Lunchtime found them all at the apartment, not much better informed than before. “Quiet day today,” La’ss’a remarked idly.
Kyrian shook his head angrily. “I couldn’t find a trace of Ligeia. Hali said he hadn’t seen her, but I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth. The Thayvians checked out, too, he said they plan to leave the city soon.” There was a loud knock at the door. “Are we expecting someone?”
Sam glided across the room and pressed his back to the wall behind the door. La’ss’a rolled her eyes. “Who’s there?” She demanded.
“It’s me! Deen!”
“Oh. Come on in.”
The halfling peeked around the door jamb and looked around. “Tom just sent me to tell you that he’s got your crew all lined up, as soon as you’ve got a ship for them, that is.”
“So how long until you’re ready?”
Deen’s expression was scornful. “I’m always ready.”
At dusk, the entire group met outside the government building: Jacynth and the elves, Deen and Dunloch, and Nymbus’ students. It was a bit of a crowd and they would have drawn attention if there were any attention to draw. The plaza was abandoned, apart from a pair of ogre mages guarding the main doors. They wore clothing that approximated uniforms, so they looked even more incongruous than ogre mages usually did.
“We’re here looking for a jaguar mask,” La’ss’a said by way of greeting. “I would assume it is somewhere in a treasury or personal quarters.”
“We’ll just have to search for it,” Deen said. “Now, if I were the boss here, and I’m not, I’d recommend we go in through the roof. From what I remember, there’s a system of catwalks and so forth in the rafters for making repairs and lighting the candles. The ogre mages don’t go up there because it won’t take the weight. Plus, they can fly, so they don’t care.”
Kyrian fluttered his wings. “They’re not the only ones.”
Deen found a secluded corner and hurled a grappling hook straight up. With a few practiced yanks on the rope, he got it wedged and began climbing. The others followed him rapidly and quietly. They began making their way over the sloping roof. Kyrian looked out over the plaza and sighed. He didn’t get to fly much, these days, and he missed it. The world looked different when you were far off the ground. The city looked like a strange sort of forest, with little creatures scurrying below. In fact, some were coming this direction.
“We got company, guys,” he whispered, pointing at the approaching group. They marched, in step, straight towards the government building. In front was a massive ogre mage, black wings flaring from his shoulders as he walked. The other five figures looked like humans. Most of them wore robes and strode with self-assurance and authority.
“Yoag, and the Thayvians,” Sam remarked. There was a colossal explosion at the doors that rocked the entire building and the Thayvians continued their march, stepping over the corpses of the two ogre mage guards. Sam grinned. “Chaos, death, and murder. Excellent.”
“We need to get inside now,” La’ss’a said. Deen showed them a trapdoor in the roof and they slipped through. Below, yet another ogre mage attired in rich robes sat in a massive stone chair, surrounded by his brutish guards. The door flew open with a crash and Yoag entered, snarling and flapping his immense batlike wings. Sythillis hurled himself from his chair and bellowed, “WHAT IS GOING ON OUT THERE?!”
“Your rule ends now, old fool!” Yoag screeched.
La’ss’a pointed behind the throne, where a small, thin mask was sitting on a display podium. “When the fight begins, I can fly down there and grab it,” Kyrian said.
“Sounds like a plan,” Sam said, but you’d better be fast.”
“We will see who is the fool!” Sythillis howled. One of the Thayvians made a complicated gesture and the mask appeared in his hands.
“Or maybe not,” Kyrian said, his wings drooping.
Yoag looked down at the red-robed human, taking his eyes off Sythillis for a moment. “Our deal is good?” he demanded. The Thayvian nodded.
Sythillis spat arcane words and pointed a finger at Yoag. There was a bright flash and Yoag dissolved into an expanding cloud of dust. Dunloch looked over at La’ss’a.
“So now what do we do?”
“We kill the Thayvian with the mask, we take it, and we run very, VERY fast,” Sam said.
The mask-holding Thayvian waved at Sythillis and a black aura bloomed around the ogre mage for a moment. Sythillis stumbled to the side, shaking his head as though trying to clear it as the ogre brutes charged. There was a bloody clash of arms and the Thayvians smashed the guards utterly, then moved on Sythillis, who was still rocking backwards and forwards in confusion. Twin explosions erupted, and the room filled with thick, choking smoke.
“It’s now or never,” Sam said and dropped a rope down into the room. He slid down quickly and silently, followed by La’ss’a. Kyrian swooped towards the floor and attacked the Thayvian wizard holding the mask. The human gasped as a sword cut into his thigh, he tried to dodge away, waving his arms frantically and chanting, as La’ss’a leapt from the rope and landed more or less on his head.
“FOR MISTRESS RELDRIN!” the little lizard screeched, clawing and biting at the angry wizard. Sam and Kyrian pulled the man down and grabbed the mask. At that moment, across the room, there was a tremendous thud as Sythillis finally fell. Sam, La’ss’a, and Kyrian took to their heels, charging out the ruined doors and ducking and dodging through the streets. They finally came to a panting stop not far from the docks.
“It looks like we got away clean,” Kyrian said. Then he looked around. A red glow suffused the sky, and the sound of fighting was loud and growing louder.
“Or maybe not,” Sam replied.
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