Riskin Flameback trundled through the streets of Waterdeep with the party trailing behind. He passed several streets before ducking into a tavern proclaimed The Mighty Manticore by its signboard.
“So, how does it feel?” the ranger blushed slightly. “With the baby coming, and all.”
Joris grimaced. “As soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” He sat down at the table while the exuberant dwarf ordered a round of drinks. Riskin dropped his sack on the floor between his feet and began rummaging, producing a noise similar to an iron golem caught in a windmill.
“So what is going on?” Sheen asked after the ale had arrived.
“Well, ‘bout a year after ye left, this fellow name of Kolskegg Steelheart moves inter Murkstones. Now, our town ain’t the sort ta turn anyone away—“
“They can always use hard workers if nothing else,” Sheen affirmed.
“Aye! And that’s what we thought we got! He opened his own forge an’ started hammerin’ out his own armor. No problem, says Hoskuld, our quality speaks fer itself. But this fellow, Steelheart, sells his wares ta the topside shops fer nothin’! LESS than nothin’!! Demand for Flameback armor’s sunk like a stone.”
“How can he do that?” Sheen asked. “He’d go bankrupt.”
“Wish I knew, Sheen. Truly I do.”
“It sounds like he has a different agenda from running a successful shop,” Talan mused.
“That’s worse, it’s squeezin’ the business o’ them dwarves down in Skullport. Clack came back that Thaglar Xundorn’s gonna do somethin’ soon, an’ he won’t discriminate who’s what in Murkstones.”
“That’s bad,” Sheen said. She glanced over at Joris, whose face was blank. “Skullport has a reputation for being profoundly unpleasant,” she explained. “Sort of like Plague-Mort.”
Kalenthor bowed slightly. “I tend to agree. This may sound a bit trite, but does Murkstones have any enemies?”
“None I know of,” Riskin said, taking a pull of his ale. “Undermountain is what it is, but we’ve always kept t’ ourselves. Hoskuld don’t want to lift a finger against a neighbor, but I ain’t so polite. Then who should I run across but you lot?”
“Well, we can talk to this Steelheart, see if we can convince him to change his policy,” Haden began somewhat hesitantly. He frowned and looked over at Sheen.
“What?” she asked, perplexed.
“No one likes being run out of business, but it’s not right to threaten this dwarf simply because he’s selling his work cheaply,” Haden said.
“Well, there is one other thing,” Riskin said.
“Isn’t there always?” Kalenthor asked, his tone rhetorical.
“Anyone who’s ever known a dwarf knows he’s got a fire in his belly. Sometimes ya can’t see it, but ya know it’s there. Not Kolskegg. No fire at all, I’ll warrant ye.”
“What do you mean?” Sheen asked. “Then why does he work?”
“Do you suspect he may not actually be a dwarf?” Kal asked.
Riskin stared at Kalenthor, his eyebrows pointing upwards in sharp V’s of surprise. “I hadn’t thought o’ that, but there’s suren somethin’ ain’t right about him.”
Kalenthor waved a hand dismissively. “Wizard. I’m used to things not being what they seem. It is merely a possibility.”
“Aye,” Riskin said, draining the last of his tankard.
“I’m willing to help, but on one condition,” Haden said.
“Name yer terms,” Riskin replied.
“If it turns out that Steelheart is on the up-and-up, you’ll tell this Xundorn he can go to hell.”
“Aye! We’ll do just that. We don’t need no Skullies comin’ around tellin’ us what ta do anyway!” the dwarf gave Haden a resounding thump on the back. “Yer all right, lad!”
“It seems like an odd thing to be worried about, though,” Sheen said.
Haden shrugged. “Despite what anyone says, dog-eat-dog business tactics just ends up with a bunch of dead dogs.” He glanced down at Ari, on station under the table, as usual. “No offense meant.” She favored him with a doggy grin.
“Of course, it’s a description made for humans by humans,” Talan said sharply.
“We’d branch out inta other markets if we had the capital,” Riskin explained.
“One problem at a time,” Sheen said.
“Hah, yer Hoskuld’s daughter all right.”
“How does a dwarven smith wind up raising a human girl?” Haden asked. Talan leaned closer, attempting not to appear interested but failing.
“Ain’t that a tale . . .” Riskin said, leaning back in his chair while everyone besides Sheen leaned in. Then Riskin slapped his knees and sprang to his feet. “It be gettin’ late, we should be goin’ on down below.” He shouldered his clanging sack again and briskly led the way through the streets. They followed a winding route around the foot of Mount Waterdeep, then the docks and the harbor stretched out before them.
“That’s a pretty big lake,” Haden remarked casually.
“Salty, too,” Kalenthor supplied.
“Really?” Haden asked, his tone skeptical. “What for?”
“You know, it’s something I’ve never considered.”
“It’s the Tears of Umberlee, I think,” Joris added helpfully. Kal snorted.
“Sure, but if you strip the religion out of it, I think it has something to do with mineral deposits. I admit the sciences unrelated to magic have never been particularly interesting to me.” He glanced at Joris. “I did not mean to offend.”
“I’m not much for ‘stripping’ religion out of anything. Don’t worry about it, though.”
“Sometimes I just speak,” Kal said in an apologetic tone.
“You can’t possibly manage to be half as offensive as Sheen when she’s in a mood,” Haden told him, chuckling. Kal smiled gratefully.
“Thank you.” They began walking again. Sheen eyed Haden askance.
“Offensive, am I?”
“In a good way, I mean.” Haden draped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead gently.
“Is there likely to be a great deal more to this walking?” Kalenthor asked, trotting along beside Riskin.
“Ta get ta Murkstones? Aye, ‘less ya got a better idea.”
“We could hire a wizard to teleport us there.”
“Teleport?” Sheen gasped, startled. “In Undermountain? I’d rather dunk my head in a smelter. You could wind up anywhere . . . and in any kind of condition.”
“Ya can’t teleport in ‘r outta Undermountain at all,” Riskin corrected. “Halaster’s got the whole place warded against it. There’s portals, but none convenient ta where we’re goin’.”
“Ah,” Kal said. “I knew I should have paid closer attention in magical history.”
They wound along the coast for a ways and then entered a cave, which proved to be occupied by half a dozen City Watch guards and a massive, elaborate hoist. “Evenin’, Emory, got comp’ny for t’night,” Riskin said heartily. Sheen smiled politely at the guards, who eyed Haden carefully before opening the gate of the hoist. Kalenthor settled into a seat and peered down the shaft below. He shivered.
“I’ve heard horror stories that start like this. Something about the Chained God—“
“The Chained God,” Tulio muttered. “The City that Waits, The Spidered Throne, Master of Secrets . . .” The hoist began to creak downward. Haden reached out and shook Tulio’s shoulder.
“Are you okay, kid?”
Tulio jumped. “I . . . what?”
“Those aren’t the sorts of names one so young should know,” Kalenthor said.
“That’s Thazia for you. The cult, they’ve burned the land, made slaves or corpses of whole kingdoms. I’d heard of the Lady, heard that Selwyn’s Grove was still safe, but only for her. Not for people. She wanted me to go with her, you know. The Lady of Mirrors.”
“Back to Thazia?” Haden asked.
“Yeah, to serve her. Like Mal does. You didn’t hear it; she was in my head.”
“There is a hefty price to serving such as her,” Kal said.
“Yeah, that’s why I said no.”
“You can’t trust women like that,” Haden announced with finality. Eventually the hoist reached the bottom without too much of a bump. There were no guards down below—no one at all, in fact. Riskin unhitched the gate and wandered into the darkness. Sheen and Haden followed, but Kal, Tulio, and Talan hesitated.
“Er, we can’t all see in the dark,” Kal called out. “Do you have any light?”
Haden turned back to look at him, then shrugged and plucked several motes out of the air. They flared brightly and flew off to hover around Kal and the others. “Fine wizard you are,” Haden teased.
“Hey, I live on the surface,” Kalenthor replied, following.
“It doesn’t get dark on the surface?”
“Not like this.”
“Hsst, quiet back there!” Riskin rumbled. “Stick close to the left wall. Hopefully no one’ll see yer blasted lights.” The tunnel emerged into an enormous cavern cut by an underground river. Buildings of one sort or another stood on both banks. Riskin stuck to the wall, which joined with a tunnel that followed the river upstream.
“Is it really so bad here that we need to avoid drawing any attention?” Kal queried.
“Do you want to find out the hard way?” Sheen replied.
The river eventually led to another settlement, little more than a village, and another hoist, this one rickety and unstable-looking.
“You’d think we’d come out the bottom at some point, here,” Haden remarked as they made the descent.
“Right,” Joris said. “Isn’t Kara-Tur just on the other side here, somewhere?”
“It’s kind of a shame that we’re not visiting Undermountain with the usual intentions,” Kal said.
“What, getting horribly killed by one of Halaster’s many, many deathtraps?” Sheen asked, incredulous.
“Well, yes, we’d probably all be killed, but imagine the fascinating things we’d see up until that point.”
“See in the pitch darkness, you mean?” Kal glanced sideways at Haden and shook his head.
“I can see why you two are a couple, anyway.”
After yet more trudging through tunnels, they reached the village of Murkstones, which was little more than a cluster of stone huts surrounding two fuming foundries. Riskin led them toward one, where he fished through his pockets, finally producing a key and unlocking the door. A great forge fire stood at the center of the room with anvils all around it. They, in turn, were surrounded by dozens of suits of armor in various stages of completion. The heat and the fumes were incredible.
An old red-bearded dwarf looked up briefly from a breastplate. “Ah, Sheen, well met. Shut the door, please.”
“Good to see you still working, you old grouch,” Sheen said.
“Aye,” Hoskuld replied. “Any luck, Riskin?”
“Not as much as ye could carry in a thimble.”
“Hmm,” Hoskuld said, putting the breastplate aside and dusting off his hands. “Here, let’s get a look at ye now.” The dwarf eyed Sheen for a moment, then switched his attention to the rest of the group. Haden smiled a bit nervously at the scrutiny.
“Sheen, me girl, I should have told ye before ye left, and I hate to say it in front of yer . . . whoever, but ye are old enough to know the truth,” Hoskuld ground out sententiously. “I ain’t yer real father.” Everyone stared blankly. Sheen groaned and rolled her eyes.
“Are you still telling that horrible joke?” she demanded.
“Oh, come now, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to say that to ye again.” Sheen bent down and hugged Hoskuld around the shoulders. His expression made him look like a cat being picked up wrong, but he waited patiently until she was done.
“These folks is hungry an’ weary, Hoskuld,” Riskin said.
“Aye, I hope you’ll not be much offended by our simple fare. I ain’t laid a table for elves since . . . well, maybe ever.”
“Not at all, sir,” Kalenthor said helpfully. They sat down to heavy dark bread and slices of roast meat. Riskin explained while they ate.
“While we’re here, I also have some news from Eldgrim Ringhammer,” Sheen added.
“That name’s familiar, though I can’t recall where I heard it,” Hoskuld said, rubbing his beard.
“He’s the head of a clan of dwarves in Sigil. He wanted me to ask you if you’d accept a commission for a suit of armor for his son.”
“Sigil, ye say?” Riskin asked, rubbing his hands together. “Now that’s branchin’ out inta new markets!”
“Yes,” Sheen said. “It’s a bit of a long story, but that’s where I ended up.”
“I knew ye’d the metal in ye, girl,” Hoskuld said. “But I never seen it until this day.” Sheen flushed, startled.
“We’ve had quite a few adventures. They seem to suit her,” Haden added from further down the table. Sheen dug out a piece of paper and handed it to Hoskuld. He frowned in consideration, then nodded.
“Oh, aye, this’ll be grand. I should get ta sleep, so I can get a fresh start in the morning. Night, all,” the dwarf smith announced, and abruptly left the room.
“Is he always like that?” Haden asked. Sheen nodded.
“His mind’s so full of work that there isn’t much room for anything else.”
“It’s been a while since he’s had anythin’ else ta cram in there, too,” Riskin added. “Anyway, yer room’s as ye left it, Sheen. Bed could do with new linens, but otherwise it’s set. I’ll see what I can do fer the rest o’ ye.” Sheen smiled, then stood and left through a side door.
“Well, I can see where Sheen got her social graces,” Talan said quietly. “On the other hand, I can’t fault their food or their hospitality.”
“I was wrong to say she was lucky not to have any family,” Joris muttered. “I’m sure she knew what I meant, but I should say something anyway.” He jumped as Haden abruptly rose from the table and strode across the room, following Hoskuld instead of Sheen.
When Haden found him, the old dwarf was sitting at a small writing desk in his nightshirt, scribbling away at some plans. He jumped when Haden entered the room and glared at the aasling. “What ye be wanting? I’m busy.”
“I can see that,” Haden said, “but this won’t take very long.”
“Aye? Well, speak yer piece.” The dwarf hopped down from his stool and stood with hands on hips.
“I thought you should know that I’m in love with your daughter and I plan to ask her to marry me.” The old dwarf’s eyebrows shot up so far they nearly met his hairline.
“Are you, now? What be your name, again?”
“I’m Haden, sir.”
“And what manner of creature be ye, Haden?”
Haden sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Human, for the most part. A little fiend and a little celestial.”
“And my Sheen be in love with you?”
“I . . . think so. I hope so.”
“Well, she knows her own mind, right enough. I can’t see as how it matters what I have to say about it.”
“It doesn’t,” Haden said carefully, “but I thought you should know. I thought I should be the one to tell you.”
Hoskuld’s eyebrows shot up again. “Ye be a brave man to say as much, and to my face, no less. Ye have some metal in ye, if I’m any judge.”
“Well, if ye be wanting my blessing for this undertaking, ye have it. If I know Sheen any, and I do, ye’ll be needing it. Now off with ye.” Hoskuld hesitated for a moment in shooing Haden out the door. “If ye have any sense, ye’ll not give her the chance to argue with ye about it. Stubborn, she is.”
“I know,” Haden said. “Don’t worry. And thank you, Hoskuld.”
They breakfasted quickly in the morning and set out to visit Steelheart’s foundry on the other side of the village. The front door stood open, propped with a large gray stone. Sheen peeked inside. The forge was very ordinary, set up much like Hoskuld’s, but the merchandise was obviously inferior. One of the workers noticed Sheen and tapped another on the shoulder. He gestured for her to come in, with the party following.
“Well met. Can I help you?”
“We’d like to speak with Kolskegg Steelheart, if he can spare a moment,” Haden said.
“Riskin Flameback has some concern that your business practices are causing trouble for the people of Murkstones.” Sheen glanced down at the floor, which was mostly covered with soot, all except for a heavy grate that led down to damp-smelling darkness.
“My practices? I sell armor, same as he does.”
“You sell it below cost,” Haden corrected.
“I can’t help it if the Flamebacks charge too much.”
“What’s down there?” Sheen asked, pointing to the grate.
“Drainage,” Kolskegg said flatly.
“Drainage for what? You’ve set it up all wrong if that’s what it is. I don’t like this! Hoskuld Flameback raised me and now you’re trying to push him out? What for? Be square with us and maybe we can all profit, here.”
The dwarf’s mouth twitched. “It drains . . . I’ll show you.” He reached out and grabbed a lever. The grate dropped open, spilling Joris and Tulio into the dark. There was a crash as they hit the ground.
“What in the Hells is that thing?!” Tulio yelled. A low moan issued from below and damp squelching noises.
Haden shoved Sheen behind him—eliciting a noise of shocked protest—and manifested a shield of psionic energy. The dwarves seized weapons and charged Talan, who dodged their blows and drew his own blades. Tulio screamed and Joris shouted something incoherent.
Sheen ducked around Haden to attack Kolskegg as Talan fenced with the dwarves, drawing close to the edge of the pit but not quite falling in. Kal dropped to his knees and peered down into the darkness.
“Gah, there’s all tentacles down here!” he announced and hurled a spell through the hole. There was a peculiar sound and a sudden inrush of air.
“Where did it GO?!” Joris demanded.
“Polymorph!” Kalenthor said smugly.
A door at the far end of the forge opened and a dwarf in full plate charged toward Kalenthor. The elf managed to avoid falling in the hole, but he took an axe in the arm for his trouble while Talan dropped one of the two he was fighting with.
Haden fended Kolskegg off with his rapier. The dwarf was bleeding badly from Sheen’s claws. “This would be a good time for you to consider surrendering!”
“Not while Xovliat lives,” the dwarf ground out. Ari bit one of the dwarves in the calf, pulling him over so Talan could spit him easily.
“Give it up!” The ranger said, rounding on the armored dwarf.
“Not while Xovliat lives.”
“Joris!” Haden yelled. “Find whatever Kal turned that tentacled thing into and KILL it!”
A great deal of splashing came from below, then a loud, wet slap, followed by several more enthusiastic slaps and a crunching noise. The remaining dwarves eyes rolled up into their heads and they fell down dead.
“Uh . . . guys?” Joris said after the silence had continued several moments. “There’s a LOT of money down here.”
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