23 Planting, 595 CY
The adventurers returned to Diamond Lake in the evening, having made the trek to and from the Free City to sell the loot they’d taken from the Whispering Cairn. During the trip, they had discussed looking for additional muscle to help them deal with the cult – once they found it. To that end they made their way to the Spinning Giant, where the garrison soldiers tended to congregate after a long day.
Xan crossed the commons to the bar and began chatting up the grizzled barkeeper to catch up on the last week’s news. The man was cleaning a glass, as was the habit of his profession, and filled the rogue in on the latest and greatest. The others scanned the room for anyone they knew. Mom smiled when he saw his friend and fellow militia member Samantha Claiborne sitting at a table drinking alone. With a grunt he took a seat opposite the young woman, and Liberty joined them.
Sam nodded to the half-orc, then kicked him lightly under the table. “Hey!” he complained.
“Hey yourself, green man,” she said pleasantly.
“Did we miss anything in the last week or so?” asked Liberty.
“Not much. I kicked my brother’s ass – again – this week. Stupid idiot should know better by now. That’s eight wins and one loss for me.”
Mom nodded. “Are you still looking for…something more?” he asked without preamble.
Sam waggled her eyebrows. “Whadda ya mean by ‘something more’?” she asked suggestively.
Liberty snerked and Sam giggled, but Mom did not seem to notice the innuendo. “More than…bodyguarding and…thug work?” he said.
Liberty nodded and softly said, “Yes, that thing I told you about last week paid out in a big way.”
“Oh really, Lib? Just how big a payout?” asked Sam, leaning in closer.
“We each came away with nearly a thousand gold.”
“And other bonuses,” added Mom.
“And we have another opportunity,” said Liberty.
Sam nodded, impressed. “Have a drink with me and I’m in. We can discuss the details later. At my place.”
* * *
Once they’d finished their drink, they exited the Giant and made their way toward Sam’s house. Xan caught up to them on the way and gave them a nod. “Sam, do you know Xan?” asked Liberty.
“I’ve seen him about, but never formally been introduced. Howsit, Xan?” she said, extending her hand to the rogue. “Nice to meetcha.”
“It’s a pleasure, Sam,” he replied, accepting the hand. “I hear very good things about you.”
“Well, I’m sure they are all true,” she said with a wink.
Though small, Sam kept her house neat. It had only one room, but it was large enough to fit everyone comfortably. She had a large table with five chairs and a small bed to the side along with other amenities.
“Nice place,” said Liberty, taking a seat at the table. Sam thanked her, then set out drinks for everyone and lit a few candles to provide light.
“So, I hear you embarrass Mom on occasion at the training grounds,” said Xan with a grin. The half-orc grunted noncommittally.
Sam laughed heartily. “He should be happy he can keep up with me.” Mom made a face at that.
“He might surprise you these days. Our little Mom has been going through some changes of late,” said Xan. “And he’s saved our lives a couple of times now.”
Sam clapped Mom on the back and handed him a drink. “Is my favorite green man getting stronger? I wonder if you can even get close to beating me again?”
Mom grunted. “I’m supposed to be a cleric of Kord, dammit! Not a damn…berserker.”
Sam grabbed Mom’s arm and attempted to feel for muscles. “Oh my goooodness,” she said, feigning a fainting spell.
“Stop that, Sam,” he grumbled. She giggled and took a long gulp of her own drink.
“Is there some rule about not allowing that sort of behavior while in service to Kord?” asked Xan. “Seems to me like you have found a way to be yourself.”
“No, there is no rule,” said Mom. “But it is…frustrating…to let the anger…the Rage take over.”
“Maybe, but your rage saved our asses in the Cairn,” said Liberty.
“Even so. I would rather not be a…person out of control.”
Xan shrugged. “You know I don’t claim to be the most devout person, but it seems to me that you should assume Kord knew what he was doing when he chose you.” Mom sighed heavily, so the rogue changed the subject. “Anyway… How’s the candlestick business, Sam?”
She finished the rest of her drink and set it down heavily. “Rub a dub dub, ya know? It’s not great, but I supplement enough being for hire elsewhere. Which reminds me… if you guys are interested, I heard that Smenk is hiring.”
Mom snorted derisively, and after a pause Liberty said, “Is he now.”
Sam nodded. “He is looking for some muscle to replace that ass Kullen.”
“I heard from one of my contacts that Kullen and his gang have fallen out of favor and no longer work for him,” said Xan with a smile. “What could they have done to make Smenk angry?”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard in ages,” said Liberty.
“It’s too bad in a way,” said the rogue. “I lost a good informant.”
Mom laughed bitterly and muttered in Orcish. Sam laughed loudly in turn and rattled off an even more elaborate curse in the same tongue. The half-orc’s eyes widened in surprise and amusement.
“So, who wants to fill Sam in?” asked Xan. “There’s a lot to tell.”
“Well, where to start,” said Liberty. “We know why Kullen got fired, for one thing.”
Sam flopped down on her bed. “Well, somebody fill me in,” she said. “The suspense is killing me.
Mom glared mildly at Xan. “You do it,” he muttered. “You always want to talk anyway…”
“I could, but you know Sam much better than I do. How about you, Lib?”
The sorcerer nodded. “The short version is that there’s a cult in town that Smenk was building an undead army to fight. We put a stop to Smenk’s group, but now there’s this cult to deal with.”
“Oh, dear lord…” said Sam.
“Huh?” said Mom, blinking in confusion.
Liberty looked over at him. “The Ebon Triad?”
“Not that. The undead army part. Smenk found out about the cult and hired someone to look into it, which is where we found out about it. Filge – the necromancer,” he explained to Sam, “was here to study the issue. Filge made the undead to protect himself, I think.” Liberty frowned thoughtfully.
Xan cut in, ignoring Mom’s glare. “Either way, now this cult is up to something down in one of the mines and we want to investigate.”
Sam propped herself up on one arm. “Do you know which mine it is?”
“Not yet, no,” said Liberty. “Filge didn’t know. Smenk does.”
Xan nodded. “We don’t know who the mine owner is. Except not-Smenk.”
Sam sat up. “So, maybe taking this job for Smenk might clue us in,” she reasoned.
“Smenk and I have somewhat of a past,” said Xan. “I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t ever trust me enough to hire.”
“Could be. He kind-of threatened me a week ago,” said Liberty.
“Kind of threatened you?!” said Sam. Mom and Xan looked at the sorcerer in surprise as well.
“He knows that we roughed up Filge,” she explained.
“Did something happen, Lib?” asked Xan. Mom, grunted questioningly.
“So, he knows everything we were trying to keep from him?” Xan pressed.
“He knows what I just told you,” Liberty retorted hotly. “I didn’t sit down for tea with him.”
“I don’t think anyone just takes tea at the Salute,” said Sam, trying to defuse the tension.
“Not usually, no,” said the sorcerer.
“What exactly did he threaten?” asked Xan.
“He said that one of his tenants had been assaulted, and that he would have to ‘leave it with the authorities,’” said Liberty, imitating Smenk’s unctuous voice. “And the way he said it left me with no doubt that he knows who did the assaulting. Assailing. Whatever.”
Xan seemed to relax a bit. “That’s not great news, but at least it means he considers us beneath dealing with himself. If he’s leaving us to Cubbin, then we don’t have as much to worry about.”
“That’s true. Didn’t think of it that way.”
“Either way, I recommend that you move anything of value out of your home. You too, Mom. When Cubbin performs a search, he walks out with a lot more than he walked in with.”
“Ohh, dear. Good to know,” said Liberty. Mom only grunted.
Sam looked thoughtful. “Hmm… Well, Cubbin doesn’t know I’m involved with you guys, yet. There’s gotta be a way we can work that… Maybe I can act like I’m taking the job from Smenk to try getting the information we need on the mine.”
Maybe so, yea,” said Liberty. “He’s got to respect your reputation, after all.” Mom grunted musingly.
“That’s a great idea, Sam,” said Xan. “You’re already known for being a hired sword. It fits.” He stopped short and the sorcerer smirked at him. “Wait… That’s a risk, Sam. What are you asking for in return?”
Sam raised an eyebrow at him. “It’s not like I have to take the job. I just go in, find out what he needs and/or wants, ask what the pay is, and then just stroll right back out again like it isn’t worth my time.”
Still smiling, Liberty said, “It worked on me.”
“As for what I want? A fair share of whatever we are getting out of this, and maybe a little extra. I’ve got a stake in this: I’m trying to get out of this damn town. I want to find my older brother. He’s out there adventuring somewhere, and damn it, I’m going to be out there with him.”
“Oh, good,” said Liberty. “Me, too. The leaving town part, not the ‘your brother’ part. I mean, that’s fine with me. I’m just saying.”
Sam grinned at her. “Maybe we can get out of her at the same time, then. It’s always good to have a buddy on the road.”
“Definitely,” said Liberty. Mom grunted in agreement.
“It sounds like you are looking for the same thing as a few of us. I think we’d be glad to have you,” said Xan.
“Aye,” said Mom.
“If you want to check the scene – Smenk’s scene, I mean – out tomorrow, we could meet up around lunch?” suggested Liberty.
“At the bakery?” asked Mom. “Gotta warn Dan and James,” he muttered to himself.
“Works for me,” said Sam. “Maybe I should head up there in the morning. Then I can go to the bakery for lunch.”
“Perfect. I’m planning two racks of crescent rolls,” said Liberty.
“Mmm… You know I love gazing at your racks, but I don’t dare eat a thing off them,” said Sam saucily. The sorcerer blushed and burst out laughing. Mom only beat his head against the table. The warrior woman rushed over to him. “Silly green Mom. You are going to hurt yourself.”
“Or break your table,” he said.
“Oh, I’d make you pay for the table.” She hugged him.
Xan looked thoughtful. “Now that I know Smenk knows about us… I need some time to deal with that. I’m going to see if I can find out if Cubbin plans to come after us. Sam, it was great to meet you. You might be exactly what we need right now. I’ll see all of you tomorrow, then.” He stood to leave, and the others followed suit.
“See you at lunch time,” said Mom, hugging Sam.
“All right. Good night,” said Liberty.
“Night, all. See ya tomorrow,” said Sam, waving.
* * *
Everything Xan learned had made him less and less happy. He’d hit a wall on discovering any unusual activity in the mines that might indicate the presence of the Ebon Triad. Cubbin was apparently not investigating the observatory, and all signs seemed to indicate no unusual activity by the lawman. The answer to his last inquiry had been, perhaps, the most disturbing: no one had seen Drake in at least a week. Frustrated, he’d gone home.
The note on his table had sent a chill up his spine.
We should talk.
None of his belongings had seemed out of place, but he’d still felt that his valuables would be safer stashed elsewhere. He’d locked up and headed to the abandoned mine office near the Whispering Cairn.
It had been searched. Muddy boot prints were the only indication of who had been poking around, and he didn’t have the training to tell anything more about them. It was then that he’d decided that they couldn’t wait anymore.
* * *
“Lib… I’m sorry to wake you, but things have come up. We need to make plans tonight.”
The sorcerer bolted upright, wreathed in flames and stark naked. “Xan! What the shit!”
He slowly turned away, acting the part of the gentleman – somewhat less successful after having sneaked into her bedroom in the first place. “I can’t say I saw that coming,” he said. “Didn’t peg you for sleeping in the nude. Sorry about that.”
She glared daggers at his back, willed the flames away, and started getting dressed. “I was too tired,” she half-growled, “to fuss around with my bedclothes. So, what’s happened?”
“Two things. One, the mine office has been searched.”
She paused. “Did we leave anything behind there?”
“No, we didn’t. But the fact that they knew about it is troubling. Second, Smenk left me a note in my home. He wants to talk.”
Liberty pulled on her coat. “Do you have it on you?”
“Yea.” He handed it over.
She glanced over it, then handed it back. “Huh. Did you tell Mom yet?”
“No, I came here first. Was going to get you and then go find him. I also learned that Cubbin has not been investigating us. Smenk lied to you… He is dealing with us himself.”
“This doesn’t feel like a trap, to me. They could have just broken in here like you did if they wanted me dead.”
“I know… That’s what makes me so nervous.”
“This Kyuss business must scare him to death,” she said, pulling her boots on. “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go find Mom.”
* * *
“You might want to knock this time,” Liberty said politely.
Xan smiled. “Why? Does Mom sleep naked, too?”
Liberty laughed ruefully, and the rogue knocked on the door. Mom opened it a few moments later, cleaver in hand, wearing only shorts. He grunted and motioned for them to come in.
“Smenk left Xan a note; he wants to talk,” said Liberty.
“Now?” said the half-orc dubiously.
“Could be? He didn’t exactly say.”
“Actually, I do want to go tonight,” said Xan. “He holds all the cards right now, and I want to surprise him. However, I think we should go get Sam first. In case things get…tense.”
“Can I put on some pants?”
Ignoring the question, Xan said, “At this point, we have to assume he knows everything. He’s been to the mine office…or at least his lackeys have.”
“Right,” said Liberty.
“All right. I’m going to get my pants now,” said Mom.
“We’ll, um, be here,” said the sorcerer.
Mom muttered to himself in Orcish as he got dressed and donned his enchanted chainmail. He woke his father and said, “Dad, take this coin-pouch and be careful.”
“Huhwha? Money?” said the old man blearily. “Where did you get this, son? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“Aye, I may be in a lot of trouble. Just take it and…if things get bad, get out of town. I’m following where Kord wants me to go. And Mom, too.”
Something in Mom’s tone belayed any further questions. “Aye. You be careful, too, son.”
* * *
A dim light was shining from Sam’s window when the adventurers approached her house. Xan knocked on her door and they heard muffled cursing followed by footsteps approaching the door. She opened it a crack and stared out into the night. “What in the world are you guys doing here?”
“We’re playing cards with Smenk,” said Mom, stifling a yawn.
“Hmm… Well… Yes, that is mostly true,” said Xan.
“What in the hell?” Sam opened the door and they could see wax on her hands. “Get in here and tell me what’s going on.”
Once inside, Xan explained, “Events have moved faster than anticipated. Smenk has invited us for a chat, and we would be honored if you were to join us.”
Sam began cleaning up her wax working. “So, I guess the whole Me Going In Solo plan is a no go, then. Whatever. You guys just tell me what you need me to do.” She paused. “How’d you find out he wanted to chat, though?”
“A note left in my home. Like I said before, we have a bit of a history. I have spent most of my adult life trying to stay out of Smenk’s crosshairs, but all that has changed. We might as well go see him and get it over with.”
Sam nodded. “Less of a risk for me, so I’m still in.”
“All right. We’ll wait ‘til you’re ready,” said Liberty.
Sam put away her chandler tools and pulled out a suit of banded mail, beginning to strap it on. Once that was finished, she pulled a sheathed greatsword out from underneath the bed. She pulled the blade free to check its gleaming edge. The weapon was a work of art, and must have cost a small fortune. Nodding in satisfaction, she said, “Let’s do this.”
* * *
Balabar Smenk lived in a sodden old mansion a century past its prime at the end of Asher Avenue. Three thugs patrolled the streets around his home, brandishing lead pipes, but when the adventurers drew near enough, the men seemed to recognize them. Two leered and gestured toward the house in a manner they must have considered to be inviting. The third started trotting toward the residence.
“So, we’re expected,” said Liberty. “Haven’t been in here in years.”
As they approached, they saw that Smenk’s front door was – as always – wide open, fulfilling an old public promise that he would always be available to his miners. A thick animal smell permeated the open portal. The foyer was poorly lit by wall sconces, but it was enough light to reveal three great bestial apes lurking within. The beasts appeared to be chained to a rail that ran through the room, within reach of nearly everywhere. They rumbled and hooted aggressively as the adventurers neared the door.
“Some open door policy,” muttered Mom.
“Phewww, it stinks in here,” Sam whispered to Liberty.
“And those things not the main reason, even,” said the sorcerer.
“I come here from time to time, for business reasons… but never to talk to Smenk directly,” said Xan.
After a pregnant moment, the unmistakable voice of Balabar Smenk called from somewhere above the apes. “Who comes calling at this darkened hour?”
“It’s Xan Quinn, Balabar. I believe I was invited.”
Smenk chuckled deeply. “Mister Quinn, so prompt! I left that note nigh a week past. Alas, you had already gone. Ahh, well. You have returned now, and that is to the good.”
“You know me… I am always out and about town. I come home so rarely.”
“Mm. So it seems. Especially of late.” Liberty squirmed a bit, and Mom put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
“Yes, things have been interesting,” said Xan. “For you, too, I hear.”
“Indeed,” said Smenk flatly, before returning to more obsequious tones. “More reasonable business hours would have been preferable, but I shall forgive this late-night intrusion. Come. Let us adjourn to my sitting room. You should be safe from my pets if you but hug the wall to your right.”
Then Balabar Smenk descended one of the staircases flanking the entry chamber, half-filled wineglass in hand. The adventurers hesitated for a cautious moment before following the Mine Manager’s instructions. Sam rolled her eyes and sighed loudly in impatience.
At Xan’s expression of poorly disguised discomfiture, Smenk smiled reassuringly. “Do not feel too badly, sir. The beasts worry even the sternest of men. It’s the eyes, you see.”
“I think you might be mistaking my nausea for something else,” said Xan. “I can taste the stink, I think.”
Smenk chuckled. “Of course, Mister Quinn. As you say.”
He ushered them into a side chamber, eyeing their arms and armor appraisingly, but without apparent concern. His gaze lingered on Sam a beat longer than the others. “I had only just heard of your association with our friends here, Miss…Claiborne, isn’t it?”
She nodded in acknowledgement. “Sam… Just Sam. And I associate with who I please… Or should I say where the money takes me.”
“Well said, my dear,” he said, sounding most sincere.
“Indeed,” Xan agreed grudgingly.
The sitting room gave the semblance of casual wealthy indifference with a pair of sofas flanking the chamber and a number of plush chairs scattered about. Smenk took a seat in the largest and most lavish of these. Liberty and Mom remained standing, but Xan sat comfortably opposite their host, and Sam did the same.
Once everyone was situated, Smenk said, “I must admit that when I spoke with Miss Grace last, I did not expect the lot of you, with the exception of Miss Claiborne – Sam – to simply…disappear. You cannot imagine my delight when I learned that you had returned to Diamond Lake this evening.” Liberty grunted, and Mom gave her a look.
“We had business elsewhere,” said Xan, smiling. “But I am sure you know all about it by now. I’m wondering how our movements have kept you so interested, myself. Only a small part of it had anything to do with you.”
“Let us not speak of the unpleasantness with my poor tenant,” said Smenk. “Unless we must. No, I’ve a more important matter to discuss, and your recent…activities eventually drew my interest. Though I will grant that you did well to obfuscate them for as long as you did. Bravo!” When no one responded, the Mine Manager continued. “The truth of the matter is, I am in need of competent agents.”
“Ahh… So this is a business deal, then?” said Xan. “What’s on the table?”
“Competent agents require proper compensation,” said Sam.
Smenk looked at her almost adoringly. “You have exactly the right of it, of course. I have been…coerced – and let me assure you that that is no mean feat – by those lurking below our fair town. As a concerned citizen, I engaged in a private investigation of their activities, but alas…I was not as cautious as I should have been.” His composure actually cracked for a moment. “I woke up one morning last month with the severed head of my best man in my bed.” The admission elicited a tiny gasp from Liberty, and when he looked up at her reaction, she could see the fear in his eyes.
“If he was truly your best agent, he would not be headless right now,” said Sam. Smenk frowned at the comment.
“Wow…” said Xan flatly. “How awful that must have been for you. But I’m confused. My information said that you went down into that mine yourself.”
A twist of his lips was all the acknowledgement Smenk gave of his irritation with Xan’s tone. “Indeed I did. Once.”
“And now you would like to hire us to do the same.”
“In essence, yes. A group may succeed where a lone man fails. I know better than to think we might be capable of trusting one another sufficiently to face this threat together, but you have proved yourselves to be both capable and circumspect. And, of course Miss Claiborne’s reputation speaks for itself.”
“You never have had much luck employing Quinns,” said Xan. Liberty finally took her eyes off Smenk to look at the rogue.
The mine manager tilted his head to one side as he considered Xan. “I’m quite sure that I do not know what you mean.”
“At any rate, you need not work for me at all. I still find it in my best interests to let you know where the cult hides itself away,” said Smenk.
“Okay, Smenk. When it comes down to it, you and I are businessmen. You are willing to include me in this for the same reason I am willing to agree to it…for the right price.” Xan looked to the others. “How about the rest of you? Are you willing to talk terms?”
After a long pause, Liberty nodded. “Sure.” Mom grunted affirmatively. Everyone looked at Sam.
“Well, I need to know it’s more than just the right price. I know this one,” she pointed at Smenk, “has issues with you guys. I want to make sure that I’m not going to get offed just for trying to make a few bucks because he’s got a hair up his ass. I’m more than happy to do what needs to be done for the cash, but I want to make sure I still have my head at the end of it.”
Smenk looked affronted. “I have no such ‘hair’, as you put it. Our fine associates here,” he indicated the others, “have cost me one agent already. I seek to parley that failure into a more profitable relationship.”
Sam snorted with laughter. “Well, I guess it would play out in both our favors if we all move forward with this. I’m in, but you better be shelling out the coin, mister.”
“I am more than willing to pay – and pay well – for your services, Miss Claiborne – Sam.” His gaze passed over the other three. “I could be so crass as to coerce your assistance in this matter. I would simply have to bring your actions against my tenant to the attention of local law enforcement. As previously indicated. But it needn’t come to that, I’m sure.” He smiled like a knife.
Sam snorted again. “Law enforcement. Yea… That’s what Mister Chubbins is.”
“’Chubbins,’” Smenk repeated, bemused. “How very droll.”
“So, basically, you offer us nothing in return for removing a serious threat to your power?” said Xan. “Not good enough, I’m afraid.”
Smenk shook his head, his expression disappointed. “I am afraid you do not see the big picture, Mister Quinn. I had thought better of you, honestly. This cult – these madmen – represent a threat to us all.” Then he smiled, somewhat warmly. “However, I can also appreciate your avarice. In addition to the…horrors I witnessed, I also saw a fair amount of wealth. I ask no cut of the spoils, which is far more generous than I would ordinarily be with my agents.”
“I could live with that,” Liberty said quietly. Mom grunted neutrally.
“Okay,” said Xan. “But I have a couple of conditions. First, I want every shred of information that you have on this cult, this mine, and its owner. We need to be completely ready for anything we might find down there.”
“Done,” said Smenk automatically. “And the other?”
“I want to know what’s happened to Cornelius Drake.”
“Ah,” said Smenk with a smile. He looked over his shoulder toward a door. “Mister Drake? Could you come out here, please?”
The door opened and Drake stepped out, looking none the worse for wear. “Hey,” he rumbled.
Liberty’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “What? How? Why?” she sputtered.
“Later,” the alchemist muttered. Xan frowned pensively, and Mom grunted. Sam gave them all a sidelong glance.
“Thank you for joining us,” said Smenk. “Now, let me tell you all about Ragnolin Dourstone…”