Drake did not show up for the meeting at the bakery, but the others decided to start the discussion of what to do next without him.
“I’m going to go ahead and guess that it’s a topic that he wouldn’t be too eager to discuss,” said Xan.
“Naturally. How can we approach him, then?”
“Maybe we could,” said Mom. “It would save time if he just told us what he knew without being…coerced.”
Xan shook his head. “That would also mark us as immediate threats to whomever is behind all this. Let me think for a moment.”
“That’s true,” said Liberty. “Assuming Kullen’s involved, he isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
“I think first I’d like to spend some time getting new information on his gang and their recent activities. I have a few contacts I could talk to without raising much suspicion. Information brokering is kind of a hobby of mine. People know this.”
“Okay… As long as it doesn’t take too long.”
“Why don’t you guys go find Drake and relax somewhere,” said Xan. “We do have cause to celebrate a bit after all. I’ll meet up with you shortly.”
* * *
Liberty and Mom went by Drake’s house, but the door was locked and the only answer from within was a drunken rumble. They decided to let him be and killed time on the Vein while they waited for Xan to complete his initial inquiries. He came back a couple of hours later.
Without preamble, the rogue said, “It looks like it’s just the four of them. A week ago, they showed up in town injured.”
“That’s just about all I need to know,” said Liberty.
“So much for the easy way,” said Mom. “I doubt that they would just tell us that they stole some corpses. Or why.” He grunted in irritation.
“So maybe we need to come at it sideways,” said the sorcerer. “Try to trick them into telling us?”
“Oh ye of little faith,” said Xan. “It should be easy to get information out of these guys.” “We’ll back your play then, Xan,” said Liberty. She sounded nervous.
“Aye, that would be all you,” said Mom. “I lack the…subtlety.”
Xan nodded decisively. “I’ll strike up a conversation. Buy them drinks – lots of them. I should be able to pick out the easiest one to manipulate. When they go their separate ways for the night, we follow that one. You guys just stay close at another table and back me up if something goes wrong. Sound good?”
“All right. I should check on that one Free City adventurer. If she’s there.”
She and Mom entered the Feral Dog, which was sparsely populated this late on a Freeday. Still, there were a few patrons remaining in the commons. Auric and Tirra conversed quietly at the bar, while Kullen and his three cronies scowled into their drinks at a table across the room. All of the patrons looked up as the door opened, but after a cursory glance, they turned away.
The pair offered the elf a friendly wave, and she nodded dismissively in return. They got a couple of drinks and took an open table in the middle of the commons. Xan came in a minute or so later and walked straight up to the bar. The bartender, wiping a mug with his semi-clean apron, wandered over and asked the rogue for his order.
“I’ll take some ale, Wil,” Xan replied, speaking loudly enough for his voice to carry. “It’s awfully quiet tonight, don’t you think?”
The barkeeper grunted. “S’Freeday. Ever’body’s got work in the mornin’.” He paused, to glance around meaningfully. “Well. Almost ever’body.”
“Ah, so it is.” The rogue nodded toward Kullen and called out, “I see at least one more group smart enough not to have to punch the clock in the morning.” The gang leader turned his scowl upon Xan, flashing his teeth mockingly.
Xan was undeterred. “How about another round for Kullen and his men on me?” he said to the barkeeper, before turning back to the gang. “Care to share a drink or two with a fellow self-made man?” Kullen grunted then waved him over. The rogue grabbed a chair from the next table over and saddled up at their table. A serving wench delivered the drinks, which the men took without comment. Only one lifted his mug in salute before drinking. Xan looked over the gang appraisingly.
Kullen himself was a towering albino half-orc who commanded the respect of everyone at the Feral Dog, where his rages were known to be legendary. To Xan’s right sat Rastophan, a wiry goon from the southern swamps. His long, clumpy black hair hung down over his large eyes, giving him a sullen look. Todrik, the man who had offered token thanks for the ale, was a corrupt fighter who’d been born into servitude to Garavin Vesst. He had short brown hair cut into a flat-top, and an angry red scar marked the left side of his face from the forehead to the tip of his chin. Last of all was Merovinn Bask, a bald and ill-tempered hedge wizard, by far the rudest of Kullen’s men.
“Haven’t talked to you men for a while,” said Xan. “How the hells have you been?”
* * *
While Xan engaged Kullen’s gang, Liberty gestured toward them and muttered to Mom, “You know, the way they throw their weight around has never sat well with me.”
The cleric grunted. “It is what it is, Liberty. But I agree.”
“That’s Diamond Lake for you, I guess.” The sorcerer sighed.
Mom leaned in close. “Just let me know if it looks like they’re gonna start something.”
“Sure,” she said absently, throwing a glance over her shoulder at Tirra now and again.
Auric caught Liberty looking and a smarmy grin spread across his face. She quickly turned to the serving wench to order more wine. “Did you want something, Mom?” she asked. “You know how awful the ale is here.”
Mom was glaring at the gladiator, who only looked amused. “An ale would work for me,” said the half-orc. “I’m a simple man, after all.”
Several more minutes passed in silence other than Xan’s banter. His easy manner seemed to be loosening the gang up.
“That gladiator’s still over there, isn’t he?” asked Liberty. Mom grunted affirmatively. “Damn it.”
As if summoned, Auric then stood and headed for the exit, but not before stopping beside Liberty to lean down and give her a deliberately appraising look. “Huh. You’re not ugly. No wonder she likes you,” he declared. Then he turned for the door, guffawing as he sauntered out. Liberty looked from the gladiator to Tirra, then to Mom, and finally down into her wine, blushing until her freckles darkened. The elf looked annoyed, but she stayed at the bar.
“You do draw the eye, Liberty,” said Mom hesitantly. “Although the observer was…unexpected.”
“I, uh, told her a story about the Stirgenest Cairn,” she said weakly.
“Maybe I should glare at her,” he mumbled.
“Oh, please don’t,” said Liberty. “She’s… I… I don’t know what it is.”
* * *
“You know,” said Xan, “you guys are all right. Come to think of it… There is a little business that I might be able to throw your way. Are you guys currently busy, or are you up for earning a little extra coin?”
“Don’t’ usually freelance,” said Kullen, holding out his hand. “But we might be persuaded.”
Xan smiled at that. “I was hoping you would say that. You know I really shouldn’t give you all of the information, but I’m in a good mood. This might not pan out, depending on what happens in the next couple of days, but if it does, you stand to make enough money that you might even owe me one. Here’s the scheme…”
He laid out a vague-but-credible plan involving moving valuable merchandise that he has been holding onto for the last five days. He told them that he needed protection and that he was willing to pay a lot for it. He mentioned that the owner of the property might decide not to move it until a later time.
When Xan had finished his pitch, Kullen said, “Sounds good, but a bit too involved for our schedule. Don’t have time for a protection detail for…however long. Good luck to you, though.”
Xan frowned. “Hmm… Sorry to hear that. Maybe we can do business another time, then.” Then he shrugged and smiled and ordered another round.
“Not that we’re being put to use on quality ventures,” Kullen grumbled.
“Ah… I’ve heard Smenk does keep a pretty tight leash sometimes,” said Xan. “Though I hear it’s worth it. How much does he pay you guys, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not enough lately,” Todrik spouted off, earning a glare from the albino.
“Enough not to be complaining about it,” said Rastophon softly, scowling as well.
Merovinn was more succinct. “Shut your fucking mouth, Tod.” The scarred man nodded sullenly, looking chagrined.
Xan chuckled. “I’m with you, Todrik. I work for myself, and I still haven’t found ‘enough’. There is always more money to be made,” he said, grinning. “But I can respect loyalty.”
“Yea. Loyalty,” Kullen grumbled.
* * *
“How long are we drinking, Liberty?” asked Mom.
The sorcerer raised her glass. “One more of these, and I’m gonna go talk to Tirra, I think. Xan’s running the long con, looks like.”
“Do you want me to…accompany you?”
“Uh, no, thanks. I think I can manage.” She smiled. Mom grunted pensively.
After her second glass of wine, Liberty stood up and approached the elf. “Good evening,” she said in shaky Elven. “How are you?”
Tirra glanced up at her with a neutral expression on her face. “Middling,” she replied, also in Elven. “I’m sorry about Auric. He can be such an ass.”
Liberty laughed, rubbing the back of her neck. “No problem.” She flailed around for something indirect to say while Tirra waited, one eyebrow raised slightly. After several awkward seconds, the sorcerer blurted, “Did you guys head out to Stirgenest?”
“Yes. I think we’re wasting our time there, honestly. I guess the stories you heard weren’t true. Or aren’t anymore. It’s no surprise, really. The way I hear it, the treasures in these hills have been thoroughly looted a number of times.” She took another drink – ale, Liberty thought.
“Oh, really?” said Liberty, sounding downcast. “Sorry to hear that.”
Tirra shrugged, and even the casual gesture looked graceful. “Eh. We raided a troll den between here and the Free City, so this trip hasn’t been a total loss. Khellek will probably insist we stay here a bit longer, though.” She paused a beat. “And Auric is in love. The idiot.”
Liberty laughed again. “Really? With a local? Anyone I know?”
“Some whore,” Tirra replied.
The sorcerer marveled that even a such a harsh term sounded beautiful in Elvish. “Seems likely,” she said. “Any woman here who isn’t a miner’s wife – or me – is probably one of them.”
“Mm. It won’t last. Never does.”
Liberty tilted her head to the side. “For him? Or for anybody?”
Tirra smiled coyly. “Indeed.”
The sorcerer took in a sudden deep breath. “Could you use another drink? I think I could.”
The elf accepted. “What about you? How’s…baking, was it?”
“That’s right, yes. Same as it ever was. I didn’t want to face another week of pies and cakes without trying to relax a little first, though.”
“Seems a little…dull. No offense. Why aren’t you using your magical talent instead?”
“None taken. I don’t know. I’m just…needed here. And there aren’t a lot of things in Diamond Lake that need to be set on fire.”
Tirra laughed at that, a sound like tinkling bells. “That’s…debatable.”
“Well said,” Liberty replied. “Let me rephrase: there’s not a lot of coin to be made in burning this shithole down. What’s the Free City like, anyway?”
“Larger. Slightly less pollution. Way more opportunity. I do like the dog fights here, though. A bit like the Grand Arena, but on a much more intimate scale.”
“Bringing that sort of miniature spectacle to Greyhawk would be just such an opportunity. I’d love to see it… My family can surely take care of themselves now.”
Tirra smirked. “You raise dogs on the side, baker girl? Have I seen any of yours in action?”
“What? Oh, no, nothing like that,” said Liberty. “I’m just saying, there might be demand for such a thing.” She nursed her drink. “Are you from the Free City originally?”
Tirra pursed her lips, as though struggling with a decision. Then she took a deep breath and said, “Look, you seem like a sweet kid, and I’m sorry if I have given you the impression that… well… there’s anything here.” She gestured between herself and Liberty. “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings – though Auric surely did, the jackass – but you do need to know that… well… I’m not into girls. Anymore.”
“Oh,” Liberty said weakly, her face reddening abruptly. “I, uh… I didn’t mean to… I thought maybe you weren’t, you know, into humans. Gods, I’m so sorry.”
The elf’s expression was pitying. “No, it’s my fault. Really.”
“Mistakes were made,” said Liberty. She laughed nervously. “Maybe we can be friends anyway?”
Tirra looked a little relieved. “That’d be better, yes. Top you off?” she offered.
Liberty raised her glass. “Gods, yes,” she said, burying her disappointment in booze and pleasant-enough conversation.
Still at the table, Mom grunted pensively.
* * *
When Kullen and his gang left the Feral Dog, Xan followed Todrik until he split off from the others, then sneaked ahead of him. As the man passed a quiet area, the rogue drew his attention and waved to him. Todrik stumbled over curiously.
“Sorry to approach you like this, my friend, but I wanted to talk to you without the rest of the group. It didn’t take long to figure out that you are more ‘open-minded’ than they are about getting what we want out of life.”
“I’m listenin’,” Todrik slurred.
“What I am suggesting is an ongoing arrangement between us. One where I pay you good money, and all I need for you to do is provide me information from time to time, that might be worth coin to others. You needn’t worry about loose lips on my account. I have been doing this a long time, and trust me when I say that no one would ever know I heard anything from you.”
Todrik tried to whistle, but instead he just managed not to spit all over the rogue. “Dependsh on the informashun. And I an’t sayin’ peep ‘til I gots cash in hand,” he insisted.
“I would expect nothing less, of course,” said Xan. “I am completely okay with that arrangement. Now, as for the information… it could be anything that you think would be worth me paying for. Is there anything you are involved in right now, for instance, that would be worth a few gold in your hand?”
The scarred man looked “thoughtful” for a few moments, blinking quite a bit before seeming to recall that Xan was expecting an answer. “Sure, fer two hunnerd gold, I gots somethin’ ya might be int’rested in.”
Xan laughed at that. “You think very highly of this information, my friend. Let me help you out a bit. Others with whom I have this kind of arrangement are generally paid ten gold for good information. If it ends up being worth a lot more than that, then I reward them with a fair share. After all, I am in the business of getting paid, too.”
The rogue pulled out a platinum piece, which drew rapt attention from Todrik. “Give me your information, and let’s begin this profitable partnership. I guarantee that in the long run you stand to make much more than two hundred gold.”
Todrik considered it. “Ten? Huh. Well, we lost Skutch last week onna job. Poor bastard. Gotta watch out for bearowls ‘round these parts, azzit turns out!” He held out his hand expectantly.
“That’s something…” said Xan, holding the coin closer to the man’s hand. “But I don’t quite see the value in it yet. What were you doing that led you to fighting a bearowl?”
“Runnin’ errands on the side,” Todrik said, spitting in disgust. “The kind that don’t bear mentionin’.”
“Aha… Now we’re getting somewhere, Tod! Tell me more of these errands. I’ll throw in another platinum just this once to start our friendship off on the right foot.”
Todrik hesitated only briefly. “We been sublet to this fella. Crazy ol’ goat name a Filge. Delivered an…unsavory package to ‘im up at the ol’ observatory, where he’s stayin’. Ain’t local. Ain’t natural.” He shuddered momentarily. “Ain’t sure what use ya might have fer it, but there it is.” He reached for the coins, and Xan handed them over.
“That’s good stuff, Tod,” said Xan. “You’ve earned your coins. One last question… This ‘sublet’... Smenk sent you to this or was Kullen acting on his own?”
The scarred man chuckled darkly. “Diggin’ a little deeper’n yer pockets can reach, ain’tcha? You just see ol’ Filge. Leave the rest be.”
“Fair enough, my friend. Now, if anything else comes up that you think might be worth something, come find me. I’ll be around. And rest easy knowing that I would be out of business if people learned who I worked with. No one ever need know we talk from time to time.” Xan offered his hand, which Todrik hesitantly shook. Then the rogue disappeared into the night.
* * *
When Xan returned to the Feral Dog, he found Liberty and Mom too drunk to make it back home on their own.
“Help,” said Liberty pitifully.
The rogue chuckled. “Let’s get you guys to bed. We have a long day tomorrow.” The sorcerer gladly accepted. Mom obstinately walked home alone.
* * *
15 Planting, 595 CY
That morning, at Liberty’s request, Xan retrieved the mirror shards found near the arcane apparatus from the abandoned mine office where they’d stashed all of the non-monetary loot acquired from the Whispering Cairn. In return, she dropped in on Allustan to ask if he was familiar with the name “Filge.” He was grateful to accept the artifact pieces, but he had not heard of the man. By noon, Drake had still not made an appearance, so the adventurers decided to investigate the old observatory without him after lunch.
Five minutes north of Diamond Lake, on a bluff overlooking yet another abandoned mine, the crumbling old edifice cast its gaze to the heavens. A wide slit bisected its domed tower, where surely a great telescope once peered into eternity. The place bore a dark character, like a sagging tenement broken under the weight of decades of inhabitants. A slim stairway cut into the steep hillside led to the structure’s only door, on the side of the tower’s attached one-story outbuilding. Beneath the landing for the entrance, an unremarkable wooden door opened into what was probably an old tool closet.
“Okay,” said Liberty. “What do you think, fellows?”
“I don’t see a play here,” said Xan. “There’s no talking our way through this.” Mom grunted in agreement. “We’ll have to try and sneak in.”
“I was afraid of that,” said the sorcerer. “Ready when you are.”
They crept up to the wooden door first, and Xan made short work of the lock. Within, a tiny creature composed of bone shards, matted hair, bits of shattered stone, dirt, and rotting, mismatched teeth sat on the floor of the tool shed. It stirred as the door opened and rose to attack the rogue. It moved with preternatural speed, but despite this advantage, it only managed to bite Xan once before the three adventurers made an end of the odd little undead creature.
“It occurs to me,” said Xan. “How are we supposed to tell which bones are the Lands’?”
“Signs of death by plague?” suggested Liberty. “Didn’t Drake say he saw a sign on some of the tombs indicating the Red Death?” Mom grunted agreement.
“Hmm… Okay, then,” said Xan.
He led the way up the stairs, which rose to a wide landing and two huge wooden doors. Shot through with dark blue mold, the doors formed an enormous round moon carved with a lunatic’s jabbering face. These doors were also locked, but Xan saw no sign that they were trapped as well. Once more, he lowered his goggles and set to work with his lockpicks. Moments later, he smiled at the satisfying click of another unlocked door.
“Boot it open?” Mom asked. Xan shrugged and stepped aside to give the half-orc room.
The doors came open with a loud thud, revealing an antechamber crammed with furniture fragments, smashed planks, broken glass, and other detritus. At the west end of the room, several upended tables formed a crude barricade, behind which lurked three skeletons, each bearing a heavy crossbow. A closed door provided the only other obvious exit from the chamber.
Liberty burned the skeleton in the middle and Mom waded into the room, channeling Kord’s holy wrath. The undead fell before they could even get a single shot off. Xan and the sorcerer entered the building once it was clear, and the rogue immediately began searching the antechamber. The cleric examined the crossbows, and decided the loaded bolts were poisoned. Two of the skeletons also showed slight deformities consistent with the Red Death plague. Mom bagged the bones, separately. He offered the crossbows up, but his companions declined.
Liberty provided Xan with magical light, and he opened the door to the north into a long hallway. Four doors were evenly spaced on the north wall of this corridor, and they could see another door at the far west end, just past a southern passage. They tried the first door on the north; within was a simple chamber hosting a plain bed, a small open footlocker, and an unremarkable wooden dresser.
“I imagine there are many rooms like this,” said Xan as he searched more thoroughly. “I remember this once being a monastery of sorts.” His search was rewarded. He found a cleverly hidden pouch dangling behind a dresser drawer containing several more platinum and gold coins. He pulled the pouch out of the dresser and said, “This will pay for last night and then some.”
“Oh, nice,” said Liberty. Mom grunted.
The other three northern doors held similar chambers, but no further treasure was found. Behind a warped wooden door on the west wall of the southern corridor, they found an old office that did not appear to have been used in years. That left only the western exit from the main hall. Xan declared it free from traps and unlocked, then opened the door.
The revolting stench of rotting flesh roiled from the large chamber beyond. In the room, ten chairs surrounded an oblong dining table situated parallel to the door. Along the north wall, a wide staircase led to an upper floor. A wooden door below the stairs presumably led to a slim chamber. A sagging antique wooden shelf dominated the west wall, looking like it might collapse at any moment.
Three tall candles on the dining table illuminated a sight of terror. With the exception of the place at the eastern end, each of the chairs surrounding the table held an awkwardly seated humanoid figure. The nine bodies were in various stages of decomposition. Some sat with splendid posture, paused as if midway through a sumptuous feast. Others slumped treacherously close to the floor.
Heaping plates of apparently fresh food sat before each of the diners, but the empty place setting featured a clean plate and set of utensils. Several bottles of red wine rested upon the table, and each of the corpses sat before a half-finished glass. A fly passed nearby, its there-not-there buzz breaking the eerie silence.
“Some of the corpses are moving,” Liberty said softly. The others nodded; they had seen it, too.
“Mom, can you bring the holy pain like you did a minute ago?” asked Xan.
“Aye.” The cleric stepped boldly up to the table and brandished the holy symbol of Kord. Radiant energy burst forth in a wave of righteous cleansing. Some of the apparent zombies burned a bit from the effort, but none of them rose to attack.
“Is that normal?” asked Liberty. “I have no idea.” Mom grunted speculatively.
“Better safe,” said Xan. He entered the room and circled the table, systematically hacking each corpse with his short sword until none of them so much as twitched anymore. They offered no resistance. When he was finished with his grim task, he asked, “Do any of them show plague signs?” Mom examined the bodies, then shook his head.
Once the bodies were dealt with, Liberty examined the rotting shelves. There she found a very nice set of silver dining utensils. Xan suggested they were quite valuable and stashed them in a sack.
A kitchen to the south contained an enormous wheel of cheese, a moldy loaf of bread, and several strips of stringy cured meat. They found a set of shoddy cutlery that might fetch a few coins as well, so they tossed it in with the silver. A small closet off the kitchen’s west wall held a handful of spices and dried food, while the storage closet beneath contained four extra dining chairs, and eight copper candle stands. Once they were finished looting, they ascended the stairs to the second level of the tower.
The steps led to a massive bedchamber that filled the entire floor of the observatory tower. Light filtering in from the tall windows ringing the chamber caught motes of dust in the calm air. A fine bed with plump red linen sheets squatted upon a dais along the southeast cradle of the tower’s arc. A nightstand next to the bed held a wax-choked candlestick and a black book bound with brown and red leather.
At the midpoint of the eastern wall, a strange form stood rigid atop a short wooden stool, as tall as a halfling and clothed in a fine black suit and top hat. Clean cloth bandages wrapped every inch of the sentry’s skin, and a pair of ash-tinted spectacles rested upon a long skinny nose. The diminutive dandy held a silver platter as if presenting a meal, and upon the tray rested the freshly preserved severed head of a middle-aged human woman. A platinum piece sat upon her outstretched purple tongue.
A mess desk rested against the opposite wall, piled high with loose papers. An apparatus holding four long tubes filled with colored liquid peeked out from the clutter. Doors on the north and west walls appeared to lead to small closets.
Wide stairs on the west wall led above, and a massive white stone statue of a thin human man with outstretched angelic wings and a beatific look upon his idealized face loomed large in the northwest arc of the tower wall. The angel held a sword in one hand and cradled a harp with the other. The presentation conjures thoughts of mausoleum peaks or the graves of important men. Tall letters etched upon the statue’s base spelled out a single word: “Filge”
When nothing reacted to their presence, Liberty advanced on the nightstand, eyes on the leather-bound book. “Carefuly, Lib. We don’t want to disturb anything,” said Xan.
“I’m already disturbed,” said Mom.
“Check for magic?” suggested the rogue, eyeing the gorgeous fur rug of some exotic beast.