Cyllan took another sip of her plain warm water, sighed and looked around. She should have ordered wine but did not want her senses dulled. Wine made her feel sluggish in even small amounts. Cyllan shifted in her chair, slumping a little then paid attention to her heartbeat and breathing for a minute, practicing her mental exercises and getting in tune with the room. She was as still as a statute as she absorbed the sounds, smells and sights inside the Juggling Ogre Inn. Her heart rate slowed as she realized everything was as it had been since she had arrived. She had been in town a few days now, staying at the Church of Karameikos cathedral. She was a member of the Church of Thyatis but the two churches had a common background and regularly aided each others’ members, especially their clergy. The chambers for itinerant female clergy were far from extravagant but since she was a Mystic, it was absolutely posh compared to her normal lodging. She realized even more how much she had missed the swirl of people. She had never been truly comfortable at the monastery. It was all silence and solitude. This, was clearly not. She watched as Willington Stough, the bar’s owner, flitted from table to table, keeping each customer plied with ale or wine and trying to keep spirits up. He knew most by name and said something personal and encouraging each time he went to their tables. He even greeted her by name.
She noted how Jael, the bard playing tonight, flung her long red hair like a furious whip as she focused on her song. This was a pretty upbeat one but the Darokinian bard (come to think of it, most of the crowd seemed Darokinian) seemed to prefer Hin songs with quite the lilt. Unfortunately, most of the patrons were consumed in their own thoughts and concerns. Merchants like the ones in this very room were going missing and no one knew why.
Despite the worry evident on the faces and in the hushed conversations of the patrons, she could saw the chaos of life and relinquished a slight smile. Master Andronica, her monastery’s leader, would have scowled. She said Cyllan was too ruled by her emotions which would lead to a life of chaos. She said or preached, rather, that while the greatest monks must see and understand the world, they must remove themselves from it by holding back the emotions which clouded impartial observation and helped chaos overrule law and order. In her opinion, order was paramount and anything which fought against it was to be battled. It had been many hard and long years in the monastery.
She glanced around noting the faces which had become familiar to her over the last few days. She had wanted to have her first lone journey be to the Tower of Stars, a monastery in the mountains of Thyatis where the great sage Shalfey foretold the future. It was rumored that he had access to the Immortals’ Book of Life which contained the history of all living beings from the past to the future. She dreamt of being able to hear what her destiny held. Alas, her mission was to guide a wagon of items (she knew not what) to the Order of the Mountain Sun, six miles north of Threshold along the banks of Lake Windrush. Her voyage had been uneventful but at least it had been outside of the monastery. She had stayed with the monks there for a week or so but eventually decided to make the journey home on foot and stopped in Threshold over night. That one night had turned into five so far. She had no agenda or schedule. It was good to move amongst the people according to Master Andronica. Of course she was quick to add, “When the Mystic is ready and strong enough to deny the temptations of the outside world.” Since she had asked Cyllan to go, she must have been judged ready. Therefore, she could make the decision of where to go next and when she should be there. For now, it was to be here in Karameikos watching the people in this tavern.
She heard a voice, louder than the others. It was coming from a newcomer. He could be a merchant but she doubted it. He was a Ylari and undoubtedly a follower of al-Kalim (True Believers they called themselves and their church was that of “Eternal Truth”), given that he had a very prominent holy symbol around his neck. It showed a palm tree with a crescent moon above it but overlaid with a large scorpion. She had not seen one with the scorpion but she was not that familiar with al-Kalim’s church. The man wore the clothes of a desert nomad but slightly fancier than she had previously imagined. She had never really met a desert nomad so she only had stories to guide her. He had been walking around all night, from table to table. He seemed to be a storyteller or evangelist or both. She had hoped he would not approach her but he was getting closer. She looked around for assistance.
Across the room she saw another newcomer. He was trying to watch everything without anyone know he was watching anyone. He was not quite the merchant type, more the adventurer type. He carried a bound sword and had leather armor under his cloak. “That must be uncomfortable,” she thought. She mused that perhaps he was a thief looking for wealthy merchant marks. Perhaps indeed. He was probably actually one of these spooked merchant’s bodyguards. He seemed to be a Traladaran and thus probably local. She did not know many Traladarans, just the ones she had encountered between Thyatis and here. They seemed to be good people and a bit on the dramatic side religiously. At least they had a healthy respect for the Immortals but their religion was wilder than she was accustomed. “I will keep my eye on that one,” she told herself.
Looking around again, she noted that there was one other new face. This one was clearly a merchant; he was well dressed. On the other hand, he seemed not to know anyone here nor did they know him. He seemed friendly enough with Stough but it was clear he did not yet know him either. Come to think of it, he had introduced himself to the barkeep tonight. She thought his name was Valmont. He could be a fellow Thyatian or perhaps a Darokinian. She wondered what he sold.
There was another non merchant here. She had seen him on a few other nights. His name was Alexei and he wore very shiny chainmail and a bound sword underneath a dark red cloak. Not quite as bold as the red cloaks of the Emperor’s legions but not hiding his presence either. He looked like he could be a soldier or at least a soldier for hire. Everyone seemed to know him and no one seemed to mind that he wore chainmail (she had observed that the local populace frowned on the wearing of metal armor when it was not on the back of a town, barony or ducal guard). He was respectful of Stough, Traladaran and kept mostly to himself except for polite greetings. On the first night she was here, he had been with a male Elf and a male Human. She had overheard him say only one thing that piqued her interest, “I cannot believe the Duke, good man though he seems, cannot see his cousin as the foul scoundrel he really is.” The people with him nodded and the Elf said, “Then we must find proof he will believe. It is simple.” She moved away then so as not to attract attention but she was interested in learning more. Political intrigue had potential for interesting times and interesting times could always benefit from a level headed, impartial advisor.
Anyway, she had not seen this Alexei with anyone else. Perhaps she should ask him about himself. She smiled slightly again.
A woman’s scream pierced the warm wooden walls. Instantly, the Ylari man looked up from his captive audience and strode to the door. Quickly behind were the man in chainmail and one of the merchants, the one who no one seemed to know. Curious at what was happening, Cyllan left her table too. She noted that the quiet man was interested but did not stand. He nodded at her as she passed. Outside, the small crowd found a woman, crawling and bloody. She whimpered like a hurt puppy and came to a stop. Her raspy, out of breath voice called to the group. By now, Stough was in the doorway with the quiet man. Stough was craning his neck then nodding and saying something to the quiet man. Cyllan could not make out his words but he clearly knew the woman and looked to be explaining something to the quiet man.
The Ylari was praying over the woman, his hands resting lightly on the bloody gash on her forehead. She couldn’t be a True Believer but the two were joined as one. In the light of the street lanterns, she could tell the Ylari’s eyes were closed as were the woman’s. While she grimaced in pain, the Ylari looked serene. The wound healed over before Cyllan’s eyes; no scab, no scar. The woman gasped and her eyes no longer registered fear, just shock at being healed by one who was obviously a priest of the Eternal Truth, not known for their treatment of non-believers.
The woman stammered, “I am Seledina . . . Seledina Dainworth. Thank you and the Immortals. It is a miracle that I am healed. But you must help me.” She looked around at those gathered around her. “My husband was just taken. You must find him. It must be the same ones who have taken the others.” She was still kneeling before the odd company.
The Ylari spoke, “who took your husband? Where did they go?”
At the same time the merchant spoke, “from where were you attacked? Did you see who did it?”
The woman looked from one to the other. “My husband is Juster Dainworth. He is a merchant here in Threshold. We came from Darokin to start our life together. This town has been good to us. At least until now. We were celebrating our one year anniversary of establishing our shop and were on our way to the Juggling Ogre. Someone jumped from the shadows down that alley. They hit me then pushed me to the ground. They grabbed Juster and dragged him into the alley. Because we were attacked from behind, I did not see their faces. I don’t even know how many of them there were; one or ten.”
Cyllan thought that little prayer of the Ylari’s must have calmed the woman’s nerves. She seemed pretty together given the circumstances.
“I am Midian al-Yacoob and I pledge to find your husband,” said the Ylari. The others around him nodded their agreement. Alexei helped her to her feet then gently nudged her in Stough’s direction. The tavern keeper waved but stayed on the steps. A few patrons were peering into the street from the safety of the tavern. The quiet man was one of them but he began to walk towards the group now that it seemed they had a purpose. Stough smiled, said something Cyllan did not catch then slapped the quiet man on the shoulder, encouragingly.
The group headed towards the dark alley cautiously. Midian walked ahead of the rest but they noticed him unbinding his mace. Because he was slightly ahead, he noticed the man first. From the shadows came a shuffling, slightly stooped figure. He and Midian stopped at the same time, just out of combat range, and the figure bowed exaggeratedly.
Valmont came closer. He had lit a lantern and as he drew nearer, everyone could see the man who stood in front of them. The flickering lamplight and the shadows it made were not kind to the man. He was old and grizzled, a stooped and broken figure. His clothes were untidy and disheveled and it was clear from where the adventurers stood that he needed a bath. Valmont’s nose twitched involuntarily before he could regain his manners.
“Ullo, there. Skulking in the alleys is dangerous work, eh? I am no danger to you, don’t worry, sir. Did you come to the scream too? ‘Tis the work of the Iron Ring, I tell you. Saw something lurking here earlier and I skedaddled as quickly as I could.” The old man nervously laughed as he spoke. “The name is Skrtch.”
“If it is them that you seek, no one knows the Iron Ring better than me. I have paid dearly for that knowledge for sure but I would give you a hand. I gave them one already.” With this Skrtch held up his right arm revealing that it ended not in a hand but only a stump within a stitched up sleeve. He laughed.
The Ylari man took a step forward. “If you know something about this crime, speak up. Lives are at stake. Did you see who attacked the man and the woman?”
“No, as I said, I left as quickly as I could when I saw figures huddled in the alley. I knew they would be up to no good and anyone up to no good in the Merchant’s Quarter is probably related to the Iron Ring.” Skrtch squinted in the lantern light.
The desert warrior gave Skrtch a hard look. “Well, then what can you tell us. Do you know where the criminals went?”
“The answer, me thinks, lies at your feet,” Skrtch laughed.
The party looked down and noticed several sets of footprints and a distinct track of drag marks leading to a set of stairs. The stairs went down as if to a cellar.
“I think introductions are in order since we are about to risk our lives together,” said Cyllan. “I am Cyllan, a Mystic from the Church of Thyatis.” She bowed her head.
Introductions were quickly made. The soldier was indeed an ex-soldier for the Grand Duchy and was named Alexei. The quiet man was Azriei, a merchant want to be. Valmont was not a merchant but an itinerant scholar of sorts. He had come to Threshold to find quiet for study, research some local legends and receive backing from a merchant or two. The Ylari was Midian al-Yacoob, Priest of al-Kalim. He said he was here to share the dreams of the Immortals with those who have not received the word of al-Kalim.
The group carefully descended the stairs. They noticed little windows (much too small to enter) along the wall but they were too grimy and it was too dark inside to see anything. At the bottom of the stairs they found a stout wooden door. Midian tried to open it but found it was locked.
The group stopped to discuss how to proceed. Most were in favor of trying to find a quiet way in. They inspected the lock and the windows. Perhaps we can remove the hinges thought someone. Alas, the hinges were on the opposite side. There must be a quiet way thought someone else.
Midian was growing impatient. He thought of how far away whoever this criminal was could be by now. He shifted his weight from foot to foot; he looked at each person who uttered advice. Finally, he had had enough. He hefted his mace and with all his strength, banged the door and splintered the wood. The echo of splintering and the ring of metal on wood rang throughout the alley but the door was still mostly intact. The other party members stared at Midian in disbelief.
“Step aside,” said Azriei. He stepped up to the door and swiftly produced several small tools from somewhere beneath his cloak. Quickly, with very deft hand movements, he worked. There was a satisfying “click” and he smiled. “All too easy” he said as he pushed the latch to open the door. It did not budge. “What the?” the rogue murmured. “There is a bar behind this door. Anyone willing to kick it in? It is not like they don’t know we are here.” Azriei looked at Midian with a sly smile.
“Stand back!” yelled Cyllan and Alexei in unison. They kicked the door together and it flew open with the boom of cracking wood.
After a second, the dust and splinters settled and it was quiet. The group peered in carefully while Midian strode forward. Valmont followed with the lantern. Skrtch kept close to the two of them. Midian stopped before entering and said a quick Aspiration to al-Kalim. He turned to his fellow party members, “just in case.” He then led the way in which was down several steps into darkness.
Scratching and skittering could be heard as several rats scattered. A large object jumped out towards Midian but he paid it no mind. Skrtch almost jumped into the cleric’s arms though. It was only a gray cat who scampered up the stairs and out the door. Valmont’s lantern light followed it up and out.
They were in a room filled with debris. Piles of junk were everywhere. The walls were lined with shelves on which more junk, mostly dusty bottles of old, rancid alcohol. Valmont busied himself with looking through these for something useful. Cyllan stood close to him doing the same. He must have found something as he slipped a small bottle into his pockets, saying only, “I will keep this on behalf of the group. It may prove useful later.” No one questioned it.
Azriei was slowly circling the room apparently looking for something. He would move a few feet then look at the walls, floor and ceiling. Alexei moved with him, nodding from time to time though neither spoke.
Midian and Skrtch had found an alcove of sorts but had seen no doors except the one through which they had entered. They did see a rather large and conspicuous crate by itself near the back wall. Midian thought the tracks they had been following led to that crate so he pressed forward with Skrtch at his side.
“Wait! I haven’t checked that for traps!” yelled Azriei too late. Midian pushed the crate and heard a click. Beams from above mixed with crashing shelves fell on the cleric and Skrtch and they were pushed to the ground under the weight. The others rushed forward and picked them from the rubble. A few bumps and bruises but still alive. Midian distractedly brushed himself off then bowed his head to say a little prayer that he was still alive. “I will try to be more respectful of your skills in the future, Mister Azriei. That would have saved a good deal of pain.”
The group turned to where the crate had been. It was now badly damaged but more importantly, it had slid and where it had once been was a trapdoor in the floor. Midian had been right. Alexei and Cyllan opened it easily and discovered it lead straight down into darkness.
Valmont dropped his torch down the hole, hoping the whole long way that its sudden stop would not put it out. He got lucky. While it was full dark where they stood, they could see that the torch had stopped approximately forty feet down. Iron rungs were embedded into the wall, all the way down. No sound or movement could be discerned below.
“I’ll go down first. Watch out,” said Cyllan taking a few steps back. She took a few running steps forward the somersaulted into the hole. The others watched in amazement then quickstepped to the hole to see what happened. They saw her below, straddling the torch. She picked it up then beckoned them down. None took her route; all used the ladder.
After some time of walking in a roughly hewn tunnel but obviously worked by someone, they had arrived at a T in the path. Both ways were different from the previous tunnel, rougher hewn and narrower. It appeared that perhaps the tunnel had intersected a natural fissure and no one had bothered to widen it. It was also more packed dirt which made it next to impossible to know for certain which way the most recent travelers had gone. Slight tracks went both ways.
“We should go to the left,” announced Midian. The cleric bent down in the flickering lantern light trying to discern any distinguishing marks. It would have been better in the desert he thought. Plus not as dreary and cold but then again the desert was already full of True Believers. It was in these unenlightened lands that the Word must be spread.
“I think we should go right,” offered Skrtch. “I don’t know why but my gut tells me that right is right. Of course since left is left and not right it must be wrong so right is the only way to go. It would be different if there was straight of course since then you have to follow the straight and narrow which I wish I had before I lost my hand.” He sighed and scratched his stump.
Valmont and Midian looked at each other and shook their heads. “Alright then,” said Midian, “it is settled that we go left. Let us proceed.”
The group continued its march down this fissure in the earth. It was hard to tell how far or if they sloped further into the depths but they went on. Gradually the passage way widened until they were standing at the entrance of a wide cavern. The far side was still obscured from the reach of the lantern. They proceeded inwards, noting that thick cobwebs hung down out of the darkness. Ahead they could see a pile of what looked like barkless twigs or branches; some scattered but most gathered in a large pile. Beneath the sticks there was a twinkle, many twinkles like light playing off glass beads or shiny metal.
The group moved closer, Midian in the lead with Skrtch at his side. At the same time, the people in front stopped. The twigs were yellowish and orangish in the lamplight. They were different sizes but unmistakably there was a round one that did not fit the description of a twig. Azriei’s eyes grew larger. “Those are bones. Human bones,” he whispered. Cyllan looked at him, finally realizing what was there.
A sound like dry leaves being crunched in a child’s eager hands rippled quickly overhead then a black object the size of a sea turtle fell silently at Midian’s feet. His mace was already out and he jumped back five feet, ready to attack. Cyllan and Azriei were not as quick to react; they were still puzzled about the sudden sound and looking at the ceiling. Luckily, Midian, Alexei and Skrtch were standing between them and the black furry mass.
It stretched out eight long legs, rearing back on six, then leapt at the desert priest. Because he was ready, his step back caused the spider to fall short. Instead it received the lunging attacks of the priest and Alexei. Both missed but they smiled grimly at finally joined battle with an enemy. Skrtch would have helped but he was too busy moving quickly to the rear of the party.
Both the priest and the soldier attacked again. Both missed but their paired actions threw off the spider and it only bit empty air where Alexei had previously been. But now the other party members entered the fray, all three sending sling bullets towards the creature. The one from Cyllan struck, spinning the spider around as it hissed in pain.
It tried again to strike at the people closest to it (Alexei and Midian) but a sling stone from Valmont thunked into its side and a white gel started oozing from its insides. Midian swung his mace but the sudden movement caused by the success of Valmont’s sling bullet forced a miss. However, it moved the spider right onto the powerfully swung sword of Alexei which nearly chopped it in half and spun the creature onto its back. The long eight legs contracted, balled like a fist on top of the overturned arachnid and it was still.
Midian quickly access that the entire party was unhurt. He knew that had anyone been bitten, they would probably be working towards death and foaming at the mouth. Death by poison was not a pleasant way to die he had heard.
Valmont moved aside the pile of bones to see what had been sparkling. “I will keep these until we can divide them up,” he said while scooping a small glass vial and a number of copper and silver coins into his pouch. “Curious” he remarked as he picked up one bone and looked at it. He popped off a stopper from one end and slid out several sheets of finely made paper. He could not read the writing on it. Cyllan, who was peering over his shoulder since he was squatting, said, “Looks like priestly writing to me.”
Valmont held the papers out to Midian but he sniffed, “later.” The cleric resumed his search for any tracks. Valmont shrugged then placed the papers back into the bone scroll case then into his pouch. “Okay then,” he murmured and shook his head.
Azriei was examining the curtain at the far end of the chamber. It was clearly made by the spider and had four unmoving lumps large enough to be people stuck in it. The breeze he had noticed came from behind the webs. He used a dagger to uncover one of the lumps. The smell made him gag. He saw that indeed a person was entombed and that it (he could not readily determine if it was male or female) was not alive. It appeared that no useful treasure could be in that and if it was, he was not going to go after it. “Hey,” he called out. “There is a breeze coming from here. It must lead to the surface.”
Midian answered him, “hmm. But there are no recent tracks there so it cannot be the way to the kidnappers. It appears that Mister Skrtch was correct. We should have gone right.” Skrtch smiled at that remark and looked around. The stump itched. It always itched. It mostly itched when he was in over his head though. He gulped.
“Okay,” answered Azriei. “Maybe we should check on that ledge up there. Seems like the spider may have come from up there at some point.” He walked back towards Midian.
“No time for that,” said Midian. “The longer we tarry, the farther away those bandits get. Al-Kalim says that ‘gifts are best in the morning as the troubles of the day ruin surprise.’ Let us continue our quest. We have promised to find Juster Dainworth.”
Valmont shrugged and stood. “Who are we to argue with al-Kalim?” Skrtch gulped again; this time loud enough for Alexei to hear. He looked at the old man then quickly turned away. The adventurers resumed their marching order and headed back towards the T in their path.