Across the Winedark Sea
It was cool in the shade. Lachlainn was grateful for that. While always profitable, the leader of the Warwik gang, the Shore Wolves, did not enjoy his visits to the city-state of Tarantis. Not in this heat.
“Gentlemen, I have one other item to show you.” A slick Gishmesh trader, Ossian, set a leather satchel on the table, moving the carafe of wine to the side. “Go ahead, my friends, look inside.”
Lachlainn was not a fan of theatrics. He flipped open the flap of the satchel and reached inside. He withdrew a pack of scroll cases, each carved from bone. They were tied with a golden cord. “Tell me these are magical, and that you’re not wasting my time with some dusty writings about desert plants or something.” He let the scroll cases fall on the table.
Ossian looked at Essam, Lachlainn’s contact for stolen goods in Tarantis, and gave him an evil grin. “Perhaps you would like to tell him, sayyid?”
Essam leaned forward, almost whispering. “My friend, these are the Scrolls of Ahriman. Lost for a thousand years, they may hold great power for someone with the knowledge and skill to interpret their secrets. Secrets of life and death, secrets of immortality. They are priceless. This is why I bring you here, sayyid.”
Lachlainn drained the last of his wine cup. “If they are priceless, why me? Surely you have sages and wizards aplenty here that would pay for them?”
Ossian spread his hands and sighed. “You must understand, sayyid, that this is not the west. Many people are superstitious of things from the lost empire of Kemed. They say that the scrolls must be cursed by Anubis, the ancient god that Ahriman defied a thousand years ago. But the learned men of the west do not share these simple superstitions, no?”
“Cursed?” Lachlainn held up his hands in front of him, warding off evil. “How do I know they really aren’t cursed? What are you trying to sell me?”
Ossian smiled. “Sayyid, I assure you, there is no curse on these scrolls. I have had them for weeks, and my luck has been anything but bad. My hair hasn’t fallen out, my skin is not covered in sores, and my wife is still happy with me in the bedroom. But priceless does not interest me, my friend. Gold interests me. Pay what I ask, take these scrolls back to your city in the west, and some doddering old sage will pay you handsomely for them. Everyone wins.”
Lachlainn looked at Essam, a question in his eyes. Essam nodded, grinning. He’d never steered Lachlainn wrong before. And 200 gold for the possibility of thousands? He would, perhaps, make in a few days what the smugglers in Warwik paid his gang in a year. “Very well. But if this Anubis kills me, you’ll be the first one I haunt.” He shook Ossian’s hand. “Done.”
Darius Halfblood, paladin of Odin, found himself standing on the shore of a small lake. Morning mist rose from the water, while fog obscured the forest beyond. From out of the mist strode a figure, walking across the surface of the lake towards him. As Darius’ eyes widened in amazement, the figure spoke.
“Yes. I don’t have much time, so listen carefully. Things have been set in motion. The pieces on the board are arranging themselves in favor of action. It is time. Time for you to return to Warwik. There’s not many who would recognize you now, but keep a low profile. Avoid the nobility.
You must go to the Thieves Quarter and ask for the Invisible Judge. It won’t take long for her to find you. She knows your desire, and can help you."
The image of Darius’ dead father began to fade. “Wait, don’t go!”
His father smiled. “We will meet again, but hopefully not too soon. Your mother sends her love.”
Darius opened his eyes and stared at the peeling paint on the ceiling of a dingy room in a nameless inn on the Saddlebow Path. A dream? Surely. But was it his father, or just his own wishful thinking, his desire for revenge playing tricks on his mind? He was tired of chasing bandits along the road, tired of slim bounties on petty thieves.
It was time.
You Can’t Go Home Again
No one at the city gates recognized Darius. The three years since his self-imposed exile from the city of Warwik left him looking haggard, and the beard and mustache hid his once fair features. He made his way though the crush of humanity, the stench of civilization filling his nose for the first time in years. He was home.
Though it had been a long time, Darius knew where to go. He started hitting the dives in the west part of town. The reactions to the name “Invisible Judge” were fairly consistent: a look of fear, then denial. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The next morning, Darius woke up and found a note on the nightstand next to his bed: “Be in the alley between the Sleeping Ogre and the tailor’s shop on Silver Lane at noon.” Had someone sneaked into his room that night? Or had the note already been there, unnoticed? Either prospect was unnerving.
The alley stunk of garbage and worse. From out of the empty air, a voice spoke. “Hello, Darius. Why are you here?”
“I want revenge. I want to cut the life out of the bastard that had my father killed.”
“Of course. And I suppose you want me to sneak you into Baron Rommin’s estate so you can chop his head off?”
“That would do nicely.”
The female voice giggled. It was a cross between sweetness and a wicked cackle. “Can’t do that. If I did that, Rommin would be dead, but so would you. Is that what you really want?”
Darius seethed with rage. “He deserves to die for what he did!” A drunk looked down the alley, squinted, then moved on. Darius lowered his voice. “What should I do then? I was told you would help me.”
“My help comes with a price. Do what I ask of you, and you’ll have much more than simple revenge… in due time. Do you accept?”
Darius made a fist and gritted his teeth. “Very well. What must I do?”
“Go to the 4th warehouse east of Culvert Street at the western docks tomorrow at noon. The door on the south side, in the alley, will be unlocked. Enter, and go to the office area. You’ll meet a man named Aterus. Perform the task he has for you. I will contact you again when it is time. Until then, do what you’ve been doing; there’s plenty of wrongs to be righted in this city.”
“What is this task?” Darius asked. But no one answered.
Ingrid was called to High Exalted Feredac’s chambers. She clutched the holy symbol of Odin at her chest and said a silent prayer, hoping that she was not going to be scolded again. The high priest never seemed to have anything good to say to her. Was it that she was a Dwarf, or because she was a woman? Ingrid never knew what Feredac based his judgements on.
The high priest sat in a red velvet, cushioned, high back chair behind a huge mahogany desk. He cleared his throat and looked up from his papers. “I have an assignment for you. You are to go to the fourth warehouse east of Culvert Street by the western docks at noon tomorrow. The south door in the alley will be unlocked. Go in and find the office. You will meet a man named Aterus. You are to help him in any way you can. That is all, sister. You may go.” He looked back down at his papers, ignoring the priestess.
This is the first time the high priest had ever asked her to do anything besides tend to the sick or clean the altar. What could it mean? She started to ask a question, but thought better of it, and turned to go. “It’s important,” the high priest said. “Don’t fail the church. He mumbled something, then added, “and be careful.”
Ingrid bowed, and walked away, confused and maybe a bit excited.
Of Gnomes and Knives
Professor Crassis found himself wandering near the docks one day when he caught sight of a man he remembered from Tarantis. He had never found out his name. The Professor knew he was a part of the criminal element in the city, and dealt with magical items, antiquities, drugs, or anything else he could move through the docks. The man was tightly clutching a leather satchel, and walking and talking with another man, who also looked Gishmesh in origin. The Professor’s curiosity got the better of him, and he began to follow the pair.
At one point he got close enough to hear their conversation. “Are you sure? Those scrolls seem kind of out of your league. How are you going to find a buyer?”
“I’m already in contact with one. I’m arranging the meet. Are you in, or not?”
Suddenly, the Professor felt a dagger at his throat. “Don’t turn around, don’t move,” whispered a female voice. “I’d rather not kill you, Professor.”
He choked out a reply. “Wouldn’t dream of it. What do you want?”
“It’s more about what you want. Want to satisfy your curiosity, and make some money at the same time?” He nodded. The voice continued. “Stop following these two. Go to the fourth warehouse east of Culvert Street tomorrow at noon. The south door, in the alley, will be unlocked. Go in, and find the office. Speak to a man named Aterus. He will be expecting you. Agreed?” The gnome nodded again.
And with barely a sound, the mystery woman was gone. The Professor smiled, clapped his hands together, and shouted, “At last! Adventure!”
There’s Always a Tavern
Wynne found herself relaxing at her favorite table in the Sleeping Ogre in the Thieves Quarter, when a man strode up and sat across from her. The small Gishmesh man had bright, alert eyes, dusky skin and dark hair. He was dressed in tarnished finery with a feathered beret on his head and a slim sword at his hip. He stared into Wynne’s eyes.
The rogue stared back, all business. A bar wench stopped beside the table. The dusky-skinned man said, “Wine, and whatever the lady’s having.”
Wynne sat back in her seat and smirked. “I don’t make my gold that way, fancy man. Buzz off.”
The man smiled. “I am well aware of how you make your money, Wynne. My name is Aterus. And I’ve got a job for you. You come highly recommended. Interested?” He sipped his wine in a refined manner.
“What’s the gig?” Wynne asked, moving her hand to the reassuring hilt of the sword at her side.
“A snatch and grab, maybe some wet work if things get ugly. Smuggled goods that need liberating from a seller.” Aterus sipped his wine, a smug look on his face. He looked like he was enjoying Wynne’s apprehension.
Wynne gulped her ale, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “And the pay?”
“Expenses up front, a grand on delivery. And a valuable contact for future work.”
Wynne snickered. “You?”
The man smiled like a cat. “No. Tiberius.”
Wynne settled back in her seat and stared. Tiberius was a mysterious wizard over in Al-Sham, the Gishmesh neighborhood of Warwik. Dropping his name could get her places, better work. “Deal. When and where?”
“Meet me at the fourth warehouse east of Culvert Street near the western docks tomorrow at noon. The south door, in the alley, will be unlocked. Go in and find the office. See you then."
Aterus drained his glass and left the Sleeping Ogre. Wynne smiled, already counting the thousand gold and what it could buy her. “Another ale!” she shouted. Things were looking up.
Odd Gnome Out
Professor Crassis always stood out in a crowd. Despite his three-foot gnomish height, his fiery red hair and beard, along with the many pouches, bags, backpacks, flasks, and gadgets strapped to his person drew attention from everyone who saw him. If that wasn’t enough, he was usually riding on the back of a large Newfoundland hound, complete with saddle. The Professor merely smiled, oblivious to his outlandish appearance.
The Professor arrived at the abandoned warehouse well before noon. The south door was, indeed, unlocked. In fact, it was slightly ajar. He gave a perfunctory glance around and listened for a moment, then pushed open the door and went inside. He clapped his hands together and beamed at what he saw: dozens of barrels and crates, all sealed and begging to be opened and their secrets revealed. Paradise!
Light spilled onto the floor from numerous holes in the roof. The Professor tore into the first barrel he came to, finding it full of old, stale flour. “Oh,” he said, “I can use this!” He scooped some into a pouch. He moved on to a crate.
As quiet as a shadow sliding along a wall, a figure entered the warehouse. She noted the noisy gnome rummaging through the crates and barrels, shrugged, then moved carefully towards the inner, enclosed office, avoiding the broken glass from the former windows that lined its walls. Wynne slipped into the shadows at the back of the room and waited.
Opening another barrel, the Professor wrinkled his nose at the smell of rotten salted beef. He heard the door into the warehouse creak. Casting a shadow onto the warehouse floor was a dwarf woman, armed and armored like a priestess. “Hello!" shouted the Professor. “Lots of goodies here – you’re welcome to have some. Stay away from the meat, though, it’s rather nasty!”
Ingrid looked wide-eyed at the fiery gnome alchemist. There weren’t many gnomes in Warwik, and none that came to the temple of Odin. “No, thank you,” she said, “I’m waiting for someone.”
“So am I,” the Professor chirped. “But he’s not here yet, so…” He opened a small crate, excitedly emptying its contents on the floor. Wrapped in oil cloth, he found 4 matching, jeweled daggers. “Woo-hoo! So many goodies!”
Ingrid shook her head, looked around, and headed into the office. Wynne stayed perfectly still, then thought better of it – dwarves can see perfectly in the dark. “Hello,” she said.
Seeing in the dark or no, it took Ingrid by surprise. “Hello. Didn’t see you there.”
“That’s the idea,” Wynne smiled.
Across the street from the warehouse, Darius waited patiently. He saw three figures go in – none of them looked like anyone he couldn’t handle. A distant bell began to chime noon. Darius checked his warhammer and armor, then strode across the dirt street to the warehouse door. He entered, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness.
Darius walked carefully across the broken glass leading up to the open office door. Inside, in the shadows, he saw a dwarf priestess of Odin. He had never met her personally when he worked out of the the temple here, but everyone had heard the story of the dwarf child that had been raised by the church from a baby. He silently hoped she didn’t recognize him. He needed to keep a low profile.
A few heartbeats later, Aterus walked into the small office, lifted a candle from the table in the middle of the room, and lit it with a tindertwig. The soft glow illuminated the small room enough for everyone to see each other.
Wynne’s eyes widened in disbelief. This man in armor before her bore a striking resemblance to the paladin who’s break-up of the gang called the Ravens three years ago landed her in the city dungeon to rot for three months before she could make her escape. She wanted to gut him where he stood, but she was sure that wouldn’t be proper etiquette for a job interview.
Darius recognized the slim woman in the corner. She had been a minor member of the Ravens gang he took down three years ago, the act that led to his fleeing the city, lest the wrath of the noble that profited from the gang’s activities come down on him. What could this task be, that necessitated a common criminal’s involvement?
Aterus spoke. “Gentlemen, ladies. Thank you for answering my summons.” He eyed the Professor, a look of confusion on his face. He shrugged, then reached into his jerkin, withdrawing a slim cigar. He lit it from the candle and took a few puffs. “Certain items have entered Warwik. They trouble Tiberius. And since they trouble him, they trouble me. He called upon me to act, and now I call upon you. Your talents and abilities should prove useful.
The items are the Scrolls of Ahriman. They are held in bone cases, inscribed in blood runes, and tied together with a golden cord. They were brought here, across the Winedark Sea from Tarantis. Many people here, in this city, and many more who are coming, wish to possess these scrolls. Should anyone besides Tiberius acquire them, there could be dire consequences. Therefore, you are to track down these scrolls and deliver them to me. When you have them, I will find you.”
The Professor raised his hand, clearing his throat. “Excuse me, I’ve seen these scrolls. I think. I mean, why else would she hold a knife to my throat?”
Aterus looked at the gnome, mouth open in surprise. “What do you mean? Where?”
“Near the docks. Two Gishmesh gentlemen, like yourself, were talking about scrolls, and sellers, and buyers, and all sorts of things. And one of them was carrying a leather pouch!”
Aterus flicked an ash from his cigar. “Who did you come here with?”
“No one, I came alone. Well, with Admiral, my riding dog here.”
“Who are you? Why are you here?”
“Well,” the Professor stammered, “I am Professor Crasis Coggley Walty Ambergris Fiddleywick, and she held a knife to my throat, said I should not follow the two men, and to come here and meet Aterus. So here I am!”
Aterus looked at the gnome, deep in thought, for an uncomfortably long time. “Very well,” he finally said. “You are in, for now. The rest of you, watch him carefully. And if anyone follows him, I want to know.”
“Me, too!” the Professor said, beaming.
Aterus reached again into his jerkin, taking out a leather bag. He sat it heavily on the table. “Here are 200 freshly minted, Warwik gold coins. For any expenses you may incur. I assure you, it is only a small token of our gratitude for your help in this situation.
“These scrolls,” Darius asked, rising from his seat at the table, “are they dangerous? Why should this Tiberius have them? How do we know that he isn’t going to do something bad with them?”
Aterus fixed Darius with a cold stare. “Tiberius looks out for this city. I trust him with my life. If you do not wish to participate, you know where the door is. It would be a shame, though, since you come so highly recommended.”
“Fine,” Darius said, sitting down again. “Where can we find them?”
“The scrolls,” Aterus replies, “likely came in through the Wash. The smugglers there know everything that comes in or leaves the city illegally. A man named Lachlainn runs a gang called the Shore Wolves. They hang out in a dive called the Red Cup. I suggest you start there. That is, unless the gnome knows where the two men took the scrolls?”
“The Professor grins. “Nope, couldn’t follow them with that knife held to my throat. They were Gishmesh, though.”
Aterus furrowed his brow. “Then perhaps you can just go door-to-door in Al-Sham and ask if anyone has seen two swarthy-skinned men recently.” The sarcasm was lost on the Professor. “As for the rest of you, be very careful – a lot of bad people want these scrolls. And watch… the… gnome… And make sure no one is following him or you.”
“Done,” replied Darius. Aterus bowed, then left the warehouse without looking back.
“Let’s go,” Darius said, walking out as well. The rest followed.
Don’t I Know You?
A salty breeze blew from the harbor, washing some of the heavy stench of the city away in its wake. Wynne continued to stare at Darius. Finally, she spoke up. “You, Darius, right? You look familiar. Where are you from?”
Darius stiffened. “Well,” he said, “from here, originally. But I haven’t been in this town for 13 years. Been bounty hunting along the Saddlebow Path."
Ingrid shakes her head. “Are you sure?” she asks. “I thought I recognized you as a paladin of Odin, from my temple.”
“Me, a paladin? No, not me.” She knew. Darius was certain the dwarf knew.
“A paladin, eh? That’s what I thought as well. About three years ago, right? You broke up a gang called the Ravens, and I spent three months in a dank cell with bread and water and stray rats to eat. That wasn’t you?” Wynne tightened the grip on her sword.
“Nope, not me. You must have me confused with someone else.” Darius yawned, and looked up at the sky. Let them believe me, he thought.
Wynne was unconvinced. But there was enough doubt to keep her from slitting the guy’s throat for now.
“So,” Darius said, hoping to change the subject, “what does everyone bring to the table, here? What skills can we count on? Ingrid here is obviously a fighter and a healer. What about you, Wynne, is it?”
Wynne fixed him with a cold stare. “What does it look like I do? I climb, I pick locks, I stab assholes in the back for betraying me, you know.”
Darius quickly looked at the gnome. “How about you, Professor?”
“Me?” the Professor chirped. “Oh, I can whip up concoctions, set fire to things, blow things up, the usual. Here, watch this!” He took a flask from his pack, unstopped the lid, and swallowed its contents. Immediately, he took on the appearance of a 4-foot tall version of Wynne. “See? Can’t do much about the height, just an extra foot, but I can make disguise potions for anyone!”
“Uh, yeah. Don’t do that – it’s creepy,” Wynne said, looking away. “And you, pretty boy, what do you do?”
“Me?” Darius replied. “I kill things. I’m pretty good at talking my way into and out of situations. I guess.”
“Ugh. Me strong, me carry things.” Wynne laughed at her own imitation. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The Wash was a destitute nest of squalor and an illicit harbor for smugglers along the sea coast of Warwik. Ostensibly a community of fishermen, it was a den of smugglers and pirates. The City Guards knew this, but until smuggling and thievery out of the Wash caused real problems for those in other parts of the city, the Guards were happy to ignore the troublemakers.
Across from the docks, which were little more than a few posts, leaning toward the shore, on which frayed and rotting ropes affixed cracked and rotting boards, was a shanty with an open front, driftwood walls, and waxed sails for a roof. A board nailed to one of the upright braces had a Red Cup in flaking paint on it.
Inside, a frame held a few small kegs behind a chipped and cracked counter. A collection of three capstans with broad tops acted as tables on which the few patrons in attendance set their cups.
Darius surveyed the situation. “We should case the place for a while, so we know what we’re dealing with. You guys stay here, I’m good at blending in. I’ll wait inside the bar.”
“Whatever you say, Sir Darius.” Wynne did not hide her disdain. They waited across the narrow street and watched the goings-on inside the Red Cup.
Just about every time a boat came to the docks and unloaded cargo – and so far, they had not seen anyone unloading fish – someone walked into the Red Cup and spoke to a man, pretty average in height and build, with short sandy-blonde hair. He had at least three long knives on a belt around his waist. Beside him was a taller, beefier man, with dark hair, long and tied back. He had long knives apparent as well, and held a cudgel in his right hand. On the table beside the dark-haired man was a strongbox. The people who spoke to the Sandy-haired man usually passed him small purses or handfuls of coins. Mr. Cudgel opened the strongbox and Sandy put the offerings in there.
Darius ordered an ale and watched out of the corner of his eye.
One fisherman came in and had a short, quiet discussion with Sandy. Sandy looked perturbed. He left the fisherman and spoke to a tall, lank-limbed man with dark hair shorn very close to the scalp. This thin-lipped, beak-nosed man’s icy eyes narrowed. He shook his head.
Two of the tree trunks posing as humans that were flanking the Beak detached themselves from the bar. Each of the large men grabbed one arm of the fisherman – his eyes widened, his mouth hung open – and propelled him out of the bar.
Darius asked the barkeep, “What’s going on?”
The sweaty, slim man looked at Darius calmly, with a hint of disdain. “Don’t get involved, son. These are not nice people.”
The fisherman was protesting loudly as he and the two men disappeared around the side of the Red Cup. He called out to someone called Lachlainn, promising double next time. Then there was sounds of physical violence, and the fisherman’s protestations were replaced by a sharp shout, then groans and crying. The two walking tree trunks returned to their place at the bar beside the Beak.
Darius excused himself from the bar, and walked out. He was careful to circle the block, instead of walking straight to where the fisherman lay bleeding in the street. Darius knelt down next to the man, and made a silent call to Odin to heal the fisherman through Darius’ touch. “Do you feel OK?”
“Yes, I feel… better.” The fisherman was confused, weak.
“Was that man with the hook nose Lachlainn?” Darius asked.
“Yes. I wasn’t able to pay him. Don’t tell him I told you. He’d…”
“I won’t. Here, take a few silver. Get out of here, and re-think what you do for a living. This looks hazardous to your health.” Darius smiled.
“I… I will.” The man stood, shakily, and stumbled off. Darius took several side streets getting back to the others, hopefully avoiding being seen by Lachlainn or his men.
Wynne and the others were waiting. “Well?” Wynne asked.
“Lachlainn is there. Look, Ingrid, I think you and the Professor would attract too much attention. I say Wynne and I pose as smugglers and talk to Lachlainn.” Darius looked at Wynne. She humphed.
“Fine with me,” said the Professor. “I don’t like the looks of those characters.”
“OK. Wynne, I’ll be your bodyguard, and go in before you. You be the silent boss – I’ll do the talking.”
“Whatever, pretty boy. Let’s get this over with.” The pair walked across the narrow dirt street into the Red Cup.
Darius stepped in first, looking around the bar as though he was scoping it out for trouble. He then looked back to Wynne and nodded. She strode in as though she owned the place. Darius approached the sandy-haired man. “I’d like to speak to your boss about some business.”
Lachlainn eyed Darius. “I’m right here, boy. What do you want?”
“Yes, sir. My boss here is looking to begin moving goods through the Wash and we heard we have to come through you to do that kind of business.”
“That’s right. So?”
“So, what’s your cut?” Darius asked.
“Twenty-five percent of estimated value.” Lachlainn stared coldly.
“That’s the deal. You don’t like it, tough.”
Darius looked at Wynne, seeking approval. She nodded, looking aloof.
“Very well. That’s the price of doing business. Now, just one other thing. We have a buyer who is looking for a particular item that he says has come into the city. We figured you would know about it. It’s called the Scrolls of Ahriman.”
Lachlainn held his poker face well. “Never heard of them,” he said, looking down at his feet.
“I see,” Darius replied. “Can you tell me someone who might know?”
Lachlainn looked annoyed. “Look, if you’re going to do business in this town, you should know what’s what. There’s one man who runs things around here. That’s Garbahn, the Bull. He heads The Monks, over in Blue Square. All the gangs pay him tribute. He knows everything that goes on in this town. Me, I just handle smuggling here in the Wash. Go see the Bull. And when you’re ready to start moving stuff, you make sure to come through me or you’ll wish you had.”
“Yes, sir. My thanks.” Darius motioned to Wynne, who turned on her heel and left the seedy dive, Darius falling in behind her.
Ingrid and the Professor were waiting for them. “Well?” the Professor asked, wringing his hands.
“Lachlainn says he doesn’t know about the scrolls. He’s lying, of course. He told us to go see Garbahn the Bull in Blue Square. Let’s go.”
“Right behind you!” The Professor jumped into the saddle on Admiral’s back, and rode the dog behind the group as they walked, humming a jaunty tune. Darius shook his head.
Along the way, Wynne slowed Ingrid down so they would be a ways behind Darius and the gnome. “You recognize Darius, don’t you? I can tell by the way you look at him.”
“Yes, I think. He didn’t have a beard or mustache, but I’m sure he was a paladin of Odin working out of my temple until he rushed out of town about three years ago. The high priest always disliked him for some reason. How do you know him?”
“He infiltrated a gang I was a member of. I sort of worked on commission, picking locks and breaking into places. They stole what was inside. I just like picking locks. When the gang was arrested, they got me, too. Spent 3 months in a rat-infested dungeon until I escaped. All because of him.” Wynne clenched both fists.
“What are you going to do?” Ingrid asked.
“I don’t know. I’m on a job, so I’m not going to endanger my chance at that much gold. I’ll bide my time and make sure he’s the right one.”
Darius and the gnome discussed various schemes to make armor lighter as the two women caught up with them. “We’re here,” said Wynne. “This is Blue Square.”
On the border of the Merchant’s Quarter and the Priest’s Quarter, Blue Square had once been a middle-class enclave. It had since become as much of a slum as the Wash. The only thing that remained of its past was the Blue Square itself, a large market square paved in blue tile. None of the tiles had been removed or damaged. This was largely due to the influence of Garbahn the Bull and his gang, the Monks. They kept the slums from becoming a chaotic war zone.
Darius stopped and turned to the Professor and Ingrid. “I’m afraid you two, again, shouldn’t go with us, we need to keep our cover as smugglers.”
“Fine by me,” said the Professor. “Ingrid, my dear, I could use a drink. Dwarves like to drink, right? Let’s find a tavern, I’m thirsty!”
Ingrid shook her head and smiled. “I guess. We’ll meet back here, after you’re done.” The two of them took off down the street. Riding the dog, the gnome was actually taller than the priestess of Odin. They drew a lot of attention.
“Ok, Wynne, let’s go,” Darius said.
“Whatever, pretty boy. So where is Garbahn?” Wynne asked, disgusted to still have to work with the cause of her past suffering.
“Uh, I thought you’d know, miss thief,” quipped Darius.
“Great. We ask around. Come on.”
Shot Down in Flames
Ingrid and the Professor finally located a disreputable looking bar called the Rabid Raccoon. Even from the outside, they could tell it was a wretched hive of scum and villainy. But the Professor wasn’t the cautious type. “Let’s go!” he exclaimed, spurring Admiral on. “A friend of mine had a raccoon as a birth pet. It’s a good omen!”
As the two… three of them entered the dimly lit tavern, all eyes turned towards them. The bartender narrowed his eyes, then pointed and shouted. “We don’t serve that kind here!”
“What do you mean?” asked the Professor.
“Your dog, he’ll have to wait outside. We don’t want him here!”
“But… but he’s my friend. And he’s no trouble, really!” The Professor was downtrodden.
“Looky here, a lovely little lady!” A druken dwarf, the place where his beard would have been, a mass of scar tissue, his nose crooked from being broken, and his dirty hair sticking out at all angles, staggered up to Ingrid. She could smell his breath, and hoped he didn’t breathe on any nearby open flames.
“Back up, sir dwarf. I don’t know you.” Ingrid checked her mace, making sure it was there and ready.
“We can fix that, lovely lady.” The dwarf got closer and attempted to grope the proud priestess.
Ingrid pushed him away and drew her mace. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said calmly. Several toughs throughout the Rabid Raccoon drew cudgels and daggers.
The Professor grabbed a flask full of red liquid off his pack. “The lady told you back off, mister dwarf, I suggest you listen to her.”
“I’ll do more than listen to her. I’ll listen to her thank me.” The drunken dwarf reached out and touched Ingrid in an inappropriate place. She brought the mace up and smacked the side of his head, careful not to do it hard enough to crack his skull. The drunk staggered back in amazement. There was a pause. The whole tavern was silent. Then, as the saying goes, all hell broke loose.
The drunken dwarf made a very amateur attempt to wrest the mace away from Ingrid. Several toughs crowded in and struck Ingrid with their weapons, but her armor and her skill kept the blows from landing. She once again drove the drunken dwarf back. Then the Professor did something to bring the melee to a screeching halt.
The gnome alchemist threw the red-liquid filled flask at the drunken dwarf’s head. It shattered, and exploded in brilliant flames, instantly burning the human attackers to death, their bodies thumping loudly against the floor. The drunken dwarf collapsed, not even able to put out the flames in his hair. The Professor had stopped the attack, that was true. But taverns, by and large, are made of… wood.
Smoke and screams mixed in an unholy conflagration. Ingrid, the Professor, and Admiral fled the scene, running down the street away from the billowing smoke and now towering flames of the Rabid Raccoon. A few minutes later, they rounded a corner, and found themselves before a small contingent of City Guards. The officer of the squad held out his hand. “Halt, in the name of the watch. Where are you going?”
“Uh, to find our friends,” Ingrid stammered.
“Where did you just come from?” asked the guard, eying the Professor’s numerous flasks and tools hanging from his pack. “There’s a tavern on fire back the way you came.”
“Well,” the Professor started, looking anxiously at the ground, “there was this drunk dwarf, you see…”
“Drunk dwarf? Redundant.”
“Quite. He was attempting to molest this fine lady here, and we… defended ourselves.”
“Yes, you can ask the other patrons, I’m sure they saw him trying to grope her.”
“I can’t. They’re dead. And the Rabid Raccoon is in the process of collapsing. How, exactly, did you defend yourselves?”
“Well, she hit him with a mace. Then a bunch of rough looking gentlemen attacked us with clubs and pointy things, so I threw one of my flasks at them. I figured a little fire would discourage them.”
“Discourage them. You attacked with fire in a wooden tavern?”
“In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t…”
“That’s it, you’re coming with us. Men?” Several guards leveled crossbows at the pair, motioning them to follow the squad leader.
“But, kind sir, maybe there’s another way?”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Ah, look,” the Professor stammered, holding out a bag of gold pieces. “I was going to give this to the bartender, you know, to pay for the damage, but maybe you could give it to him yourself. There’s twenty gold in there.”
The guard took the bag and weighed it in his hand. He opened it, and looked inside. He then tucked it into his armor. “We’re done here. Men, let’s go.”
The Professor started to thank him, but Ingrid covered his mouth and drug him away.
“But we haven’t had our drink yet!”
Ingrid shook her head. “I’m not thirsty anymore. Let’s go find the others.” Note to self, she thought. Don’t go anywhere alone with the gnome.
The Professor sighed. “Well, now that I think about it, I had a falling out with that friend that had the raccoon. Maybe it wasn’t such a good omen.”
The two set out to find Darius and Wynne.
The Bull and Sword
Darius and Wynne asked several people about where to find The Bull. They were ignored or worse. As they were about to give up, someone cleared their throat behind them, then rattled a tin cup. Turning around, they saw a man with his legs amputated at the knees. He was holding out a cup, and pointing into it.
Darius looked like a man who had just had a heavy object dropped on his head. He took out a few coppers and dropped them into the beggar’s cup. “Where can I find Garbahn the Bull?” he asked.
“Everyone knows the Bull holds court at his inn, the Bull and Sword. It’s right over there. Dumbass.” The beggar pointed. A large, stone building, three stories tall, dominated the skyline at the center of Blue Square.
“Thank you,” Darius said, and hustled Wynne towards the inn.
“OK,” Darius said, “same as before. You be the silent boss, and I’ll do the talking.”
The building was built of huge blocks of dark grey rock. Each block was taller than a man, more the height one would expect from a fairly generous story of a house. There were three levels of blocks, corresponding to three stories within. There were no windows at the side, only facing the street – three sets of them, a set of two for each level of blocks. There was a single door leading in, which hung open.
The only thing keeping the two of them from entering was the presence of ten tough-looking thugs lounging around outside. Darius and Wynne began to carefully walk between them.
“Where you going, armor boy?” one of toughs said, stepping in front of Darius.
“We’re here to see someone,” Darius replied.
“Yeah, OK. So?”
“So we’d like to enter.”
The thug sighed. “Who… are you here to see?”
“The Bull. Garbahn.”
“We have business with him. We want to buy something, and we were told he knew where we could find it.”
“Alright. Go inside.”
“Thanks.” Darius and Wynne stepped into the inn.
Bullfighting Without a Cape
Inside the building the illumination was poor, and while there was the smell of something savory, it was laced with the scent of vinegar and something else – slightly sweet, slightly heavy. As their eyes adjusted, Darius noted that the interior of the building was wood rather than stone. The ground floor was divided by a wood wall far to the back. The room was spacious, with sparse though tasteful furnishings. There were very few patrons.
A large man sat at a corner table, his back to the corner. He had arms the size of most men’s legs, and a chest that could fill a wine cask. His dark hair was cut fashionably short, though he had a very unfashionable beard.
Darius approached respectfully. “Sir,” he said, bowing, “you are Garbahn, the one they call the Bull?”
“Yes, you’re observant, I’ll give you that. What do you want?”
“My boss, the lady here, was hoping to do some business with you. I’m her bodyguard and negotiator.”
Garbahn chuckled. “What I’d like to know, is how a small-time, former member of the Ravens became boss of anything. Wynne, isn’t it? How long did you spend in that hole? And have you found that sneaky paladin that put you in there?”
Wynne stepped forward. “No, great Bull, I have not.”
“I see. OK, cut the bullshit, boy, and tell me what you and the lockpicker here want.”
Darius was flustered, but decided to get right to the point.
“We’re looking for the Scrolls of Ahriman.”
Garbahn shook his huge head. “Don’t know where they are. I hope someone took them out of my town. They’re dangerous, and a lot of nasty people are looking for them. When everyone from high priests to the captain of the White Guard tell me that they don’t want the scrolls around, that they’re cursed, and… Let’s just say I want to distance myself from them. I want them gone. I’ve got enough trouble running things around here without something like that polluting the waters. And you should steer clear of them too.”
“I understand, great Bull,” said Darius, gesturing in obeisance. “We want them out of town, too. Someone wants them who is going to make sure they don’t harm anyone. Are you sure you don’t know anything?”
Garbahn stared at Darius, exasperated. “Look, son, I tell you what. All I know is two Gishmesh up in the Al-Sham neighborhood had them last. That’s all I know besides what I told you. You look like the type that doesn’t take advice, but I reiterate: stay clear of those things. You’ll end up dead.”
“You’re right, great Bull, I don’t take advice very well. But thanks for the information. Let’s go, Wynne.”
Coffee, Tea, or Death?
“There you are,” the Professor said, riding his dog up to Darius. What did you find out?”
Darius looked at the Professor, then to Ingrid (who looked away, embarrassed), then back to the Professor. “Why is there a column of black smoke rising into the sky from the direction you came from? Anything you need to tell us?”
“Well,” stammered the gnome, “there was this drunk dwarf, you see…”
“Redundant,” Darius and Wynne said in unison.
“Yes, well, he tried to grope Miss Ingrid, and well, we got in a fight.” The Professor looked down at his hands.
“And you burned the place down. Why aren’t you in jail?” Darius asked.
“We bribed the guards. No harm!”
Darius sighed. Wynne covered her mouth and looked away.
“We need to go to Al-Sham. I guess it’s where the majority of Gishmesh people live. Let’s go.”
“Gishmesh? I know all about them. Speak the language!” the Professor was excited at the prospect. “They have a potent alcohol called Black Mist they drink to seal trade agreements. Fumes can be seen rolling off of it. It’s made with effervescent plums, you know? And then there’s coffee, very popular over there, hasn’t made much inroads around here, grows best in warmer climes, it’s beans, you see? They grind them, then pour hot water over them, and…”
“Coffee? Damn, that’s right.” Wynne seemed pleased. “We don’t need to go chasing all over Al-Sham. We just need to go see the Wyverns.”
“They have wyverns here? I didn’t think they were intelligent, just dumb dragons with two legs instead of four. Ouch!” Darius put his hand on his head after Wynne rapped it with her knuckles.
“No, dolt, it’s a gang. You know, like the kind you like to have arrested and sent to dungeons to rot in the dark? Shut up and let’s go.”
Al-Sham was a well-kept neighborhood, given its close proximity to the Thieves Quarter. It had cobblestone streets, unheard of outside the Merchants and Priests Quarters. Wynne led them to Valesh’s Coffee House in a part of Al-Sham called The Three Temples.
The building seemed to be carved out of one block of sandstone, but closer inspection revealed simply a good job plastering and painting. A patio constructed of boards fronted the place, and while the interior itself was not exactly open to the street, there was an un-shuttered opening in the outer wall that led to the patio.
The interior was lit by hanging oil lamps and light streaming through the open wall. There were many tables, each surrounded by a few cushioned chairs. Lithe young men in clean ivory-colored tunics and breeches served cups and pots of a steaming black beverage to the patrons.
Against one wall sat an older, yet handsome Gishmesh in full desert clothing. His bearing demanded respect and awe from everyone attending him: the muscular warriors with dangerous looking scimitars, to the lovely, veiled women fawning over him.
“That’s Ghazzi,” Wynne whispered. He’s the leader of the Wyverns. Pretty boy, you’d better do the talking, Gishmesh of his rank don’t look at women as anything but pretty slaves.”
“I could talk to him, I speak the language!” said the Professor, a bit too loud for Darius.
“No, thanks, Professor. I’m afraid he’d think you were auditioning for royal fool.” Darius grinned.
“He wouldn’t be bad to work for – I’m sure he would have uses for blowing things up, maybe I should!” The gnome wrung his hands together with glee.
Ingrid grabbed his shoulder. “Come on, Professor, we’ll wait outside.”
Darius approached the leader of the Al-Sham Wyverns. “Great Ghazzi, a word, if it please you.”
Ghazzi fixed Darius with a casual glance. “Speak.”
“My compatriots and I are looking for the Scrolls of Ahriman. We were told they were in Al-Sham, and your eye surely takes in everything here in your realm, so we thought you might know where they were?”
Ghazzi stared, emotionless. “No, I have heard of no such thing in Al-Sham. I am sorry.” One of his guards leaned down, whispering in his leader’s ear. Ghazzi’s expression never changed. “I see. How much would such information be worth to you, sayyid?”
“Great sir, that would depend on the information.” Darius held steady, despite being nervous.
“Well, sire, a name would be worth… Twenty gold coins?” Darius looked for a response. Wynne loudly cleared her throat. “One moment, sire, while I converse with this… woman.”
“Are you crazy?” Wynne forced herself to whisper. “That might have worked in the Wash, but this is a different league you’re in here. Damn, you’re stupid.”
Darius returned to Ghazzi, burning in the face, but wiser. “A name, sire? Perhaps… 50 gold coins?”
Ghazzi considered. “Two names. And a place.”
“Yes, sire, that would be most helpful. How much can I give you for this information?”
“One hundred gold sovereigns.” Ghazzi crossed his arms, the negotiation over.
“Very well. One moment great sir.” Darius went back to the others. Coin pouches were produced, and after some haggling about who had bribed whom and for how much, Darius returned with the gold.
One of Ghazzi’s guards took the pouch. “Very well. The scrolls are in the possession of a Gishmesh named Essam. He brought them here from Tarantis with a man named Lachlainn. Lachlainn did not want to work with the scrolls, so Essam bought out his share, and began working with my closest lieutenant, Faruq, who’s brother Aki he knew in Tarantis. But know this: you are to not harm… no, not to even annoy Faruq. Essam is nothing to me, as are these accursed scrolls. But Faruq is like a son to me. You do not want to see what will happen to you should he come to harm because of this.”
Darius bowed low. “You have our word, great Ghazzi of the Wyverns. No harm will come to Faruq. You have our thanks. We will leave you now.”
“Essam spends his time at The Pillowed Palace of Safaviyaa, in the Black Tower section of Al-Sham.” Ghazzi nodded once, then turned his attention to one of the women who was offering him more wine.
The Pillowed Palace of Safaviyaa
The Black Tower area was much the same as the rest of Al-Sham, with cobblestone streets of acceptable maintenance and plastered wood buildings that appeared both clean and stable. The market at the center of the neighborhood was dominated by the remains of a black stone bell tower, now little more than foundations and a few crumbled walls.
Looking on the market was a tented patio littered with cushions. Men sat on these cushions, puffing smoke from a stem attached to a pipe that both rose from a bowl and had a bowl on its top. In the back corner, three men sipped on drinks, their pipes sitting unused. Three other men stood around them, eyes outward, cudgels hanging from their belts.
“This looks like the place,” Wynne said. “How do we want this to go? What if they don’t have the scrolls?”
“They don’t, silly.” The sweet, singing, feminine voice made everyone turn. A woman stood there wearing the stiff-leather breastplate and mail of a legionary scout. A long rain poncho covered her, but the pommel of a short sword protruded slightly behind her back. For all that, she had the sharp features of a Venus, flawless marble skin intact.
“Just who in the Nine Hells are you?” Wynne snarled.
“You can call me Fortuna. Look, I know you’re after the scrolls, a lot of people are. And I’m guessing that you work for Tiberius, am I right? You’ll have a much better chance of getting the scrolls if you work with me.”
“Why?” asked Darius.
“Because, silly man, I know where the meet is going to be, and who the buyer is.” Fortuna beamed her smile back at Darius.
“What’s your angle?” asked Wynne.
“I don’t want the scrolls. I’m trying to take out the buyer. Rather than have you hovering around or worse yet, stampeding in, blowing my plans, we can work together and stay out of each other’s way. And besides, I want 10% of your take, and an introduction to Tiberius. Times are tough for an ex-legionary. I need work.”
Darius looked at the others. Wynne sniffed and looked up in disgust. Ingrid shrugged, and the Professor was talking to himself about formulas or something. “Fine,” Darius said. “Where and when is the meet?”
“It’s in the Flavian Market District at the noon bell tomorrow. There is a tavern at the sign of the Cow and Cart. The buy is going to happen in front of it at one turn after the bell. The seller is supposed to be meeting with the buyer. The signal is the seller touching his elbow twice with his thumb. Remember, you get the scrolls, I get the buyer. Make sure of your target before you go storming in. Good luck!” Fortuna bounced away, seemingly carefree.
“Come on, people. We might as well go to the Sleeping Ogre and wait. I’m starving.” Wynne started walking towards the Thieves Quarter.
“And we can have the drink we missed!” exclaimed the Professor, urging his riding dog forward.
“This time, you keep those flasks on your pack, not on the clientele.” Ingrid scolded.
“Why me?” said Darius, and started after the motley bunch.
The Flavian Market
The Flavian Market in the Thieves Quarter was filled with tenements and small homes. Most of the buildings were two or three stories, often with a workplace or shop on the ground floor, the owner’s residence on the second, and tenant’s apartments on the third floors. The buildings were made of wood with plastered walls. The roads were bordered with channels siphoning off the liquid waste thrown from the windows and the doors down into the sewers. Much of the solid waste had not yet entirely departed, congealing into stench-emitting muck.
The streets stunk of humanity and all its byproducts, and were narrow, overcrowded places filled with vendors hawking their wares, carts trying to squeeze though, and the great, unwashed masses trying to go in a hundred different directions.
Into this circus of humanity came the crew. The Professor had swallowed a potion to appear as a halfling beggar (one with a large dog in attendance), while Wynne wore the dress of peasant. She did not look pleased at having to cover her leather armor and have Darius hold on to her weapons. Ingrid? Well, she just tucked her holy symbol into her armor – it’s kind of hard to hide an armored dwarf woman. It didn’t matter much: with so many people in one place, one would have to be a rampaging minotaur to get noticed.
The Cow and Cart
A large square shingle hung over a set of five stairs leading to a door slightly below road level. On the shingle was a crudely painted dapple cow pulling a two-wheeled cart. In the top, right corner was a cup and in the top left corner was an amphora. The place only sold drinks, no food.
The building, like the others around it, was of plastered wood. It had started to lean to the left, its upper floors resting against those of the next building. Its plaster had yellowed and chipped away in places. Wooden shutters hung open and dark smoke leaked from them, disappearing quickly upon its escape.
To one side of the door was a merchant selling earthenware jugs from a ratty and stained blanket that covered part of the waste channel, suspended over the filth by a dingy board. To the other side was a hawker selling beaten metal pots and pans. Across from the tavern was a tailor working in a shop made from a kind of lean-to topped with a waxed tarp and a vintner selling from a cart holding eight large amphora.
The road was crowded and loud. Because of the many building supports and columns taking up parts of the road, only one cart could move, and move slowly. There were bottlenecks and knots of socializing also impeding movement.
Everyone took up positions around the ratty tavern, hoping to spot the scrolls when the meet went down.
The door of the tavern swung open. Five men sauntered out onto the road. Dirty, ragged and brutish, these didn’t look like men who traded in scrolls. One of the group, a crooked nosed bastard with only one ear, swept the crowded street with his eyes, not slowing or stopping on any particular person. He touched his elbow twice with his thumb.
A man detached from the crowd and moved toward One-Ear and his group. The clothes of this dark-eyed, dark-haired man seemed almost too clean, his bearing too precise. His eyes hinted at passionless calculation and cold aloofness. He offered a hand to the one-eared bastard who signaled. His offer was ignored.
One-Ear spoke as though through gravel, and his voice held no small hint of superiority. “You’d be here about the Scrolls of Ahriman, eh?”
The Contact mumbled his reply. “Do you have the scrolls here?”
One-Ear spit off to the side. “Now that doesn’t answer my question.”
The Contact leaned forward, speaking quietly. “I am ready to deal.”
A fat, dark-eyed brute shouldered past One-Ear. “You got the gold?”
Holding up an unblemished hand with trimmed nails, the Contact continued to speak softly to
One-Ear, ignoring Dark-eyes. “There is no need for violence, friend.”
With an audible growl, Dark-eyes drew out a long knife, its single edge pitted and notched. “I ain’t your friend.”
From out of the crowd charged a figure, tall and broad at the shoulder, covered in a long and voluminous cloak. The sound of sword clearing scabbard and cutting through bone all but overlapped. The Figure took a step back, the short sword held at guard, blood on its edge. A high squeal came from Dark-eyes. He stared at the stump where his knife-hand had been.
The scene seemed to freeze for a few heartbeats. The Contact took a step back, then a second. Blood continued to pump from the stump at the end of Dark-eyes’ arm. The Figure in the cloak broke the silence.
“Give me the scrolls and I won’t have to kill you.” The words came as a sibilant hiss.
One-Ear lunged forward, sword in hand. With clubs and long daggers, his three remaining comrades joined the attack. Dark-eyes fell to the ground, into an ever expanding pool of his own blood.
The Figure knocked aside One-Ear’s sword then batted him away with a swing of his arm. One-Ear was launched into the air and impacted against the wall of the tavern. Club blows rained down on the Figure, but he shrugged them off, and dropped a second man with his fist. The remaining two men disengaged, then turned and ran.
The Professor dashed as quickly as he could through the crowded street to where One-Ear lay, unconscious. The gnome searched the body quickly, looking for the scrolls. And coins. He found coins, but not the scrolls.
The Figure set off towards One-Ear, and the Professor looked up at the seven foot tall killer with a mixture of fear and amusement in his eyes. But the advancing Figure was blocked by three more individuals. The most striking was a woman, wearing the stiff-leather breastplate and mail of a legionary scout, short sword in her hand. For all her military bearing, she had the sharp features of a Venus, flawless marble skin intact. Her two counterparts, armed and armored like her, faded into shadow against her flame.
The Figure, though, seemed unimpressed, and charged forward. The three moved quickly, and with both greater skill and coordination than the thugs earlier. Still, they seemed unable to slow the dark cloaked Figure. In the melee, the Professor was given a chance to see beneath its hood. Scarfs were wrapped around its face, revealing only two red-tinged eyes.
Though Fortuna and her men put up a better fight than the thugs, the Figure still left them all moaning and prone on the ground.
“Let’s go, Professor!” Wynne screamed, dragging the gnome along. They sat out after the cloaked figure and his go-between.
Ingrid ran to Fortuna and her men, and channeled the energy of her faith to heal their wounds.
“Thank you, priestess,” gasped Fortuna. Darius ran up and knelt beside her. “Don’t worry, Darius, he wants the scrolls too badly. There will be another meet. I have a way to find out where. I’ll meet you at sundown at Black Tower square. I’ll know by then where the next meet will be. Stupid thugs. This was supposed to be a simple exchange, not a dick-waving contest.”
The Sleeping Ogre
“What I want to know is, how do you lose a seven-foot tall lunatic in a black cloak? Was there a convention of them or something?”
Wynne glared at Darius, not appreciating the supposed humor of it all. “You saw how many people there were. He obviously suspected he would be followed, so he found a way to evade us. Next time, you run after him.”
They all concentrated on their drinks, save for the Professor. He was regaling them with tales of high-seas adventure, with pirates and Skandik warriors, the faking of his death, of learning advanced alchemy in the city of Malikarr, and much more. He was loud, and he was a troublemaker, but he had seen and done a lot more than any of them. Time passed quickly.
The Long Night
The springtime temperature dropped considerably after sunset in Warwik. The four of them waited patiently for Fortuna, near the ruins of the Black Tower that was the namesake of the neighborhood.
Fortuna finally arrived, looking no worse for wear from the battle with the cloaked figure. "I’ve heard things from some pretty reliable people, and it looks like the deal is still on. The problem at the first meet looks like something to do with Shakur, the buyer’s go-between, but he won’t be a problem anymore. I found his head and his body in two different places near the Red Inn where they were staying.
The word is that the new meet will be at the Stone Court, in the Sanctuary, the hour before sunrise. There’s a catch. The Festival of the Earth Mother is tonight. The Sanctuary will have an observance. I went past it, and there’s about five of the big priests with guards there. They likely won’t clear out until a couple of hours before sunrise. You go there during the observance and you’ll need to be careful not to draw attention to yourselves.
I’ll be waiting with my men in the shadows. I’m pretty confident the scrolls will be there this time. The buyer has insisted that it just be two men to meet him, and one of them is to have the scrolls. Let’s be ready – this is it.”
“Who’s the buyer? What was that… thing?” Darius asked.
“None of your concern. He’s mine. Be ready.” Fortuna disappeared into the night.
The Stone Court
Just within the walls, and bordering the East Docks, was the least exclusive of locations within the Merchant’s Quarter.
Buildings of white plaster, some of brick, flanked wide streets paved in stone and bordered by lantern posts. The ground floor facades were almost all merchants or artisans of some sort or another. The occasional window on a second or third floor had an iron terrace or flower planter, hinting at residences for those who worked or managed the stores and workshops below.
Standing stones, most reaching higher than two men, some with other rectangular blocks reaching between them, formed a circle around a stone altar at the top of a small hill. The Sanctuary was the largest untouched area in all of Warwik. It was one of the few places in the city one could still find grass in a public space.
The Sanctuary was bright with torches and lanterns. Congregants covered in long, earth-tone robes and hoods swayed in unison to the chanting issuing from the ten individuals in white linen that stood in a circle within the structure. At the center of it all, a man in black robes, crowned with a diadem of golden laurels, worked at the altar – sacrificing, reciting, singing, whatever the ceremony demanded of him.
Luckily, there were several hawkers on the fringes of the celebration selling robes. Soon the group more or less blended in with the crowd.
The Earth-Mother was a pagan goddess, worshiped by people who occupied the area Warwik was in prior to its founding. The celebration was more a secular affair now, even though it was run by the temples.
As the horizon began to show signs of false dawn, the crowds thinned out.
Lanterns burned on every third post on the streets surrounding the Sanctuary. Torches still burned in some of the sconces around the Sanctuary itself. The night was cold, with sunrise still a good hour away. There was suddenly movement, as a single tall figure left the shadows surrounding the Sanctuary and strode up the hill to its center.
“Wait,” came a voice from behind the group. They spun to see the speaker.
The Hidden is Revealed
Fortuna was there, with her two warriors, as well as Aterus. With them, as well, was a man in simple gray robes with a hood, wearing an unadorned porcelain mask. The man in the mask spoke. “I am Tiberius. We don’t have much time. Seeing how strong Ahriman already is, I’ve decided we need your help.”
“Ahriman? Who, him?” Darius raised his voice. “What’s going on?”
“No time,” Tiberius replied. “Just know that Ahriman was a necromancer a thousand years ago. He seeks the scrolls to return his full power to him. He is dangerous, and must be destroyed. Take this. This scroll must be attached to Ahriman’s body with two silver nails. It has the power, then, to dissolve his corporal body and destroy him forever. Fortuna and her crew will have an identical scroll. And Aterus and I have a third in case you both fail.”
“What about those other scrolls, what if he grabs them now?” Wynne gasped.
Aterus stepped forward, grinning evilly. “They’re fakes. Tiberius made them as bait, once he heard Ahriman was alive, looking for them. He knew they would lead the necromancer here. You were put into play to cause the buyer and seller to be forced to seal the deal as quickly as possible.”
“We were played,” Darius said, looking at the ground.
“And you’ll be paid,” quipped Aterus.
“There’s no time, look, they are here.” Tiberius pointed toward the standing stones. Two figures approached Ahriman.
“Let’s go!” Fortuna whispered loudly, and began moving up the hill. Darius, Wynne, the Professor, and Ingrid followed suit. There was no time to think it through.
One of the men held up a leather satchel. Ahriman swept it away with one hand, and brought his sword up with the other, cleanly cutting the man’s head from his shoulders. The necromancer deftly followed through with the stroke, and on the backswing, sliced the other man’s gut, spilling his life blood and organs onto the packed dirt near the altar. The Earth Mother now had two more sacrifices on her celebration night.
Fortuna yelled, jumping at the necromancer – hammer, nail and scroll in hand. Ahriman swung his arm, backhanding her and sending her sailing through the night air to land on the cold ground. Her warriors rushed to her side.
Ahriman grunted, then gasped in pain, as Darius, channeling the might of Odin through his hammer, smashed the necromancer’s ribs. From the other side, Wynne reached out and tapped a silver nail through the banishment scroll into Ahriman’s leg. The necromancer screamed, making an unholy keening sound that split the night.
Ahriman wheeled around, putting his back to the paladin, who no longer hid his power over evil. The necromancer reached down and gently put his hand on Wynne’s head. He uttered something in a dead language, and Wynne screamed in pain, huge gaping wounds opening all over her body.
“Hey, mister big, undead, ugly guy! Check this out!” The Professor galloped up the hill on Admiral’s back, and thew an alchemical flask at the screaming necromancer. Flames flared up on Ahriman’s hood, blocking his vision.
Darius swung his hammer again, striking Ahriman in the back.
Ingrid stood at the edge of the terrible scene, and clutched her holy symbol. “Odin, All-Father, I call upon your might. Let your grace flow through me and heal my friends, and smite my enemy!” Light burst from the dwarf priestess, filling Wynne with a warm glow. Many of her wounds faded, and she was able to see past the remaining pain towards her goal. And in that same glow, the necromancer, cursed by Anubis in the deserts of Kemed all those centuries ago, screamed in agony.
“Now, Wynne!” Darius screamed.
Wynne wiped the blood from her eyes, took aim with the small hammer, and drove the second silver nail through the scroll, and into Ahriman’s unnatural flesh.
The necromancer’s body went rigid and fell to the ground. There was an awful sound as the air rushed from his lungs. The luster left his eyes, which became milky and slowly shriveled, as though drying out. A weak tendril of what looked like smoke rose from the figure’s mouth and dissipated in the evening air. Ahriman’s skin, then the muscle beneath, and then the necromancer’s entire body dried to sand and ash, collapsing to the ground, a cloud of dust hanging above it. A shining short sword fell, clanking to the ground, all that was left of Ahriman of Kemed.
You Can’t Handle the Truth
Tiberius, Aterus, and Fortuna advanced up the hill. “Well done, my friends,” Tiberius said, through the mask. “You’ll never know how many lives you likely saved tonight.”
“I don’t like being played,” Darius said. “I think you owe us an explanation. And some gold.
“Of course. Ahriman was a priest of Anubis, very powerful, in the deserts of Kemed, far to the east of Tarantis. It is said he discovered the secrets of life and death, and was worshiped as a god himself, for a time. Anubis struck him down, and many thought that was the end. But Ahriman had invested part of his power, part of his ka, or spirit, into a set of seven scrolls, on which he wrote all the secrets of life, death, and undeath.
After a thousand years beneath the sands of Kemed, Ahriman regained enough of his ka to return to a semblance of life. He began searching for his scrolls. But the real scrolls had been taken by grave robbers, and none that came in contact with them knew their worth. So they ended up in the hands of collectors across the known world. Some, it is said, are lost forever.
But if there was even a small chance that Ahriman could regain the scrolls, he had to be stopped. His returning to life was revealed to me, so I set this plan into motion. I created a fake set of scrolls, and gave them to one of my contacts in Tarantis, and told him to spread the word of the scrolls’ existence. I was prepared to go anywhere the scrolls ended up to insure Ahriman was destroyed, because I knew he would hear of them and seek them out.
It so happened that Lachlainn and his man in Tarantis, Essam, expressed an interest in the scrolls. They were allowed to buy them and return here. The rest, well, you know the rest of the story.
Now, here is your gold; one thousand each – in platinum, so it won’t be quite as heavy.” Tiberius smiled. “You have done well. I would like to keep you in mind for future employment, should the need arise. Or are you so angry with my little ruse that you would shun any dealings with me?”
“Ooh, shiny!” the Professor exclaimed, pulling out one of the platinum coins. Darius shook his head. Ingrid laughed. Wynne rolled her eyes.
“I think,” Wynne began, “that we need breakfast, then a nap. I’m heading back to the Sleeping Ogre. You coming, paladin-boy?”
“Splendid idea!” exclaimed the Professor. “I can tell you all about my adventures aboard the Skandik raiding ship, Rimewind, and then…”
A breeze blows away the ashes of Ahriman, revealing a golden ring with a dazzling ruby in its mount. A gloved hand reaches down and picks up the ring. Fade to black.
I would like to thank Sword’s Edge Games for their excellent module, The Kheufer Scrolls: A Sword Noir Adventure, that I adapted for this campaign.