“Shall we have a look at this Crooked House?” asked Liberty once the adventurers were once more outside the wizard’s manor.
“Couldn’t hurt,” rumbled Drake. “I need something functional so I can bring my lab in.”
“We can start looking for something more permanent once we’ve set up there,” she said.
“I’m for it,” said Xan. Mom grunted his assent.
They made their way back to the Foreign Quarter of Greyhawk, a diverse and busy neighborhood, packed with shops from dozens of nations and numerous inns that catered to merchants and travelers from faraway lands. The buildings there reflected this diverse ethnicity, as few look alike and construction styles vary wildly from building to building. Structures were made from stone, fancifully carved wood, and countless other more exotic materials.
Asking for directions to the Crooked House, they were directed to an older part of the Foreign Quarter, in which the houses and hovels sagged and leaned, and stone surfaces were weathered smooth like gravestones marking forgotten souls. Above the streets, towering chimneystacks rose high above rat-infested shingles, and ravens called into the perpetual twilight of the cavernous alleys beneath.
The locals called this corner of the city Midnight’s Muddle.
The streets of Midnight’s Muddle were narrow and unlit, and chimneys often cloyed the alleys with the tangy stink of woodsmoke. Three streets passed through the neighborhood – Nevern Walk, Bobclay’s Alley, and Muddle Street. These streets were traveled by locals, for the most part, and the looming walls of the surrounding buildings kept them in perpetual shadow save for an hour or two during midday.
Building walls were very rough and looked like they could be scaled without too much difficulty. Most roofs varied between twenty and forty feet in height, and were wood-shingled. The narrow streets were slightly raised in the center so rain would wash filth to gutters on either side. Drains in the gutters released this overflow down to the sewer below, but likely backed up during the rainy season.
The southeastern edge of Midnight’s Muddle faced the Free City’s Low Market, a large square that hosted crowded daily markets that drew customers and entertainers from throughout the city’s less affluent districts. If there was anything that couldn’t be found for sale in Midnight’s Muddle, chances were that one could probably find it for sale somewhere in the Low Market. Xan was well aware of the bazaar, having used it to cash out loot on his previous two trips to Greyhawk.
“It’s not without its charm," Liberty mused.
“If you like rats…” said Mom.
“That’s true. It is a little more like home.”
“Don’t mind rats,” said Drake. “Used to them.”
They asked around about the Crooked House and the locals agreed about its quality. Tarquin ran an honest business, catering to both locals and visitors alike. Many of the owners of local businesses stopped by the Crooked House for a pint after closing up for the evening. Tarquin encouraged this by cutting most of them a good deal and engaging them in lively conversation about business and local events. He was equally friendly to newcomers, offering up his rooms for the modest price of six silver nobles per night, including a small meal in the morning. The taproom of the Crooked House was often busy late into the night, and things could sometimes get rather lively, especially when a local bard or street performer stopped by to entertain the guests.
“Six nobles isn’t bad to begin with,” said Liberty. “I wonder what dropping Eligos’s name will get us.”
Drake shrugged. “Do we really need to bother with a discount? May as well give a kind man his due.” Mom grunted in agreement. “Honestly, with our ‘income’, we could stay at his inn for longer than we’d like.”
“I suppose,” she said. “Maybe he’ll treat us better. I don’t know. Let’s find out; it should be over this way."
One of the larger buildings in the neighborhood, the Crooked House, was just that – a bit off tilt. Its walls were all at odd angles while none of its windows or doors was quite square. Despite this, the building looked to be in good repair, freshly painted and clean. The place had a charm not seen in many of the other buildings in the district.
“Off kilter … like we are,” said Mom.
Liberty grinned. “Perfect.”
“Looks appropriate to say the least,” agreed Drake.
“Speak for yourselves,” said Xan with a smile. Mom snorted.
Drake clapped Xan on the back. “You’ve stayed in worse.”
“Hells, I’ve lived in worse,” said Liberty.
“I have, yes,” said Xan. “And I wasn’t saying I didn’t want to stay here. I’m sure the beds are soft enough and the ale is strong enough.”
“The latter is the most important,” said Drake. Liberty shook her head and headed inside. The others followed.
Inside the inn, the taproom was decorated with numerous trophies, primarily owlbear heads. The tables had uneven legs so that they sat level on the slightly sloping floor. The staircase leading upstairs was a bit treacherous, as it had shifted significantly over the years. The rooms, they would later discover, were all of good quality, containing a straw mattress bed, wardrobe, and table with an oil lamp.
When they walked in, the gnome proprietor was busy serving up a meal. He looked up smiling and asked if they were interested in joining.
“Nothing would please me more, good sir,” said Liberty, returning the smile.
“Gnome,” mumbled Drake under his breath.
The sorcerer spared him a momentary glance of irritation, then continued. “We were also hoping that you might have some rooms available. Eligos spoke very highly of your establishment, Mister Shortstone.”
“Ohhh, did he now?” said Tarquin delightedly. “Any friend of Eligos is welcome here, and that’s a fact! Damn fine Dragonchess player, that one! How many rooms will ye be needin’, then?” Without waiting for a reply, he called back over his shoulder. “Marta! A round o’ drinks fer Eligos’s friends there!”
Liberty aimed a “See?” look at her fellows, then answered the innkeeper’s question. “Four rooms, if you have them to spare.”
The gnome nodded emphatically. “As it happens, I do.”
“Oh, thank the gods,” she said. “With the Tournament going on, you can never be too sure.”
Drake fished out several gold orbs and placed them on the table. “For the rooms, food and ale; keep the latter two coming, if you please.”
The gnome winked up at Drake. “Fer friends, drinks come with the room,” he said conspiratorially.
Liberty’s expression upgraded from “See?” to “Told you so”.
Drake’s eyebrows rose. “Appreciated.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Xan sincerely, taking a seat at a table near the small stage. The others joined him. More regulars came in for the meal, and the mood of the commons was merry. Food and drinks were served, and conversation started up in earnest. Someone produced a stringed instrument and another a flute, and then the music began. Before long, it was difficult to hear oneself think – in the good way.
“Well,” said Xan, once they had settled in. “It looks like we have a few days to entertain ourselves. Who wants to do what first?”
“Tonight we drink,” said Drake. “Again.”
“I’m thinking we need to take care of business before pleasure,” said the rogue. “After lunch I’ll head off to sell the items we collected recently. Once the dealing is done, I’ll be up for seeing the sights. Maybe we can spend the early evening learning more about the city.”
The alchemist nodded. “Hit up the markets tomorrow. Spend our hard-earned gains.”
“I only know that I’ve got to find someone to get me into the Star of Celene at some point,” said Liberty. “Oh, and I should return my library book before it bores me to death.”
Drake’s eyes opened in interest. “Library?”
She looked at Drake. “Yes. The Chronicle of Chan? Allustan had me check it out from the Great Library the first time we came here.” At his blank look, realization dawned. “Oh, right. You weren’t with us that time.” She glanced down at her drink.
“Eh, things happen,” said Drake. “I’d love to see the library. I’m sure they have all kinds of interesting books.”
“It’s incredible, yes,” she agreed. “I’m sure there’s something there that would interest you.”
Drake nodded. “I also need to find some reagent shops, and see if I can get in touch with the local alchemist’s guild if we plan on a long stay.”
They discussed a few more plans before Tarquin came over to their table and struck up a conversation. “So, what brings ye to the Free City, friends?” the gnome asked jovially. “Here for the Champion’s Games?”
Drake shook his head in reply. “Looking for business, mostly.”
The innkeeper inclined his head. “Plenty o’ that to be found, and no question.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know how to get into contact with the Alchemist’s Guild, would you?” asked Drake.
Tarquin looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head. “Not specifically, no. Is there such a guild?” The question seemed somewhat directed at himself.
Following Drake’s lead, Liberty said, “Though we hope to enjoy some of the festivities while we’re here. Tell me, Mister Shortstone, is there anything that we can’t afford to miss?”
The innkeeper went off on an excited tangent about a fair number of can’t miss events coming up in the next several days. He barely seemed to draw breath between his long-winded sentences. After he concluded his expositional barrage, he exclaimed, “And that’s just the events before the games themselves!”
“The energy in the city is incredible,” said Xan. “The whole games seem to have taken over.”
“That they do, Master Xan! They do indeed!” agreed Tarquin.
“The champion becomes something of a celebrity, I suppose?” said Liberty nonchalantly.
The gnome tittered. “Last year’s champion – Eric? Elric? – was something of a blowhard, but he gave a great show in the arena, and that’s a fact!”
“Auric, yes!” said Liberty. “We actually met him back home.”
“Yeah, we met him,” Drake grumbled into his drink.
Tarquin snapped his fingers. “Auric! Yes! Just so. Met him, ye say? Where’s home?” he smiled widely.
“She was speaking of Diamond Lake,” explained Xan. “However, I’m not sure that’s home anymore.”
“Too right,” said Liberty. “Too right.”
Tarquin looked thoughtful for a moment, as if trying to dredge up a memory. “Can’t say as I’ve heard of it.” He shrugged it off with a grin. “Prefer city life, then?”
“Very much so, yes,” said the sorcerer.
The gnome nodded emphatically. “Plenty to see. Plenty to do. So much to experience. Adventure! And ye don’t even have to leave the walls!”
“Better here than there,” agreed Drake gloomily.
“Ah, don’t be so glum, chum!” Tarquin said to the alchemist.
“Have to fend off a chimera and get yer purse cut in the same hour…” Drake trailed off.
“Oooh, but that sounds like a marvelous. tale! Let’s hear it, aye? Here, have another round, lad!” The innkeeper gestured solicitously toward the stage.
Drake hesitated. “I’m not one for words…”
“All right,” said Liberty. “Then I’ll tell the story.”
The sorcerer launched into a slightly embellished version of the menagerie parade, using minor illusions to enhance the telling. The roar of the charging chimera was particularly effective, eliciting gasps of excitement from the entire commons. She stood on a chair to demonstrate Xan skewering the beast at the end, and wild applause erupted from all over. Tarquin smiled at her from behind the bar, offering a nod and a slow clap for the showmanship. Someone bought another round. Liberty took her seat and raised her tankard to her friends, then drained her ale, clearly pleased with herself. Slowly, the (long) lunch hour came to an end. People reluctantly headed back out to work and their lives, a little happier than they’d been before they came in. Just another day at the Crooked House.
“Ain’t gonna lie, Lib. You got a flair for words,” said the alchemist.
“Thank you, Drake,” she said with a smile. “If I’d had more flair for withstanding punishment, I wouldn’t have had to make so much of that up.”
He raised his glass in toast. “Eh, gotta learn to get behind Mom and I. Don’t want to have to-“ he interrupted whatever he’d been about to say by taking a drink. His expression turned solemn, and he focused all of his attention on finishing his lunch.
Liberty scooched her chair closer to the alchemist and placed a hand on his arm. “We made it, Drake. We’re fine. I’m fine.”
Xan patted the sorcerer on the shoulder. “You really do seem to have had a weight lifted, Lib. You’re a bit of a breath of fresh air.”
She aimed a crooked grin at the rogue. “That weight is Diamond Lake, and it’s all good riddance to me.”
“Well, I like the new Liberty Grace,” said Xan. Her smile faltered a bit before she put it away. The rogue took note, but turned toward the alchemist. “The new Drake, too; even though he seems to be slipping a bit back into his old self.” Xan smiled at the big man to take some of the sting out of his words.
“Yea, I’m killin’ the mood,” rumbled Drake.
“It’s amazing how fresh the days are and how many possibilities one sees when they are living without being overly burdened by responsibility,” said Xan. “And on that note … I’m off! Thanks for the entertainment, Lib.” He stood and headed out the door to fence the loot.
Liberty muttered something about the “responsibility of stopping the end of the world” under her breath at his passing.
* * *
23 Flocktime, 595 CY
The next few days passed in a blur of activity. In exploring the possibility of a treaty/trade agreement with the Twisted Branch tribe of lizardfolk, the adventurers were directed to the sour-faced but apparently good-hearted country noble responsible for the area surrounding Diamond Lake and more particularly, Blackwall Keep. He expressed his appreciation for their efforts, though he groused about getting his fellow nobles to care much. Regarding the importation of Nirnroot, he put them in touch with merchants, who put them in touch with distributors, and on up the commercial chain.
Those seeking permanent residence found a few promising leads, new equipment and reagents were purchased by those in need of same, and the adventurers began to settle in to life in the Free City. Xan spent most of his time enjoying himself – declaring that he was on vacation. He hung out with whoever was available, including several “regulars” at the Crooked House, and made many new contacts for later exploitation. Drake acquired the lab equipment he’d purchased through Benazel, and with Tarquin’s permission set up shop in his rented room. He spent a couple of hours a day crafting new potions (he referred to it as “Drake-ing Bad” for some reason), and the rest of his time was spent out in the Free City. Everyone agreed that he seemed more relaxed than he ever had before. Mom kept his own counsel, but Liberty was nearly quivering with excitement by the end of the third day.
In that time, the adventurers had come to know some of the regulars to the Crooked House pretty well. The house tended to buy drinks when they were around, and that made the group fairly popular. Rolph the Carpenter, working hard on construction projects for events surrounding the Champion’s Games to keep his wife and three boys fed. He professed to love them fiercely despite his tendency to hang out in the tavern. The fat merchant Fargus dealt in cloth and was on his third wife. He admitted that she was homely but sweet, and a hell of a cook. Mallak was a city guard, who sat in the corner minding his own business most times, but they’d caught him smiling at their antics a time or two. And there were many others who came in at different times of the days, including – to Liberty’s delight – one or two elven patrons.
The sorcerer kept an eye (sometimes both) on the elf man seated at the bar while she caught up with the fellows. Xan had apparently decided to try to assist Drake and Liberty in getting some attention from the opposite sex, and offered to work the room on their behalf. The sorcerer begged off, but Drake shrugged his acquiescence. Despite the rogue’s best efforts, he could not find any takers for romancing the badly burned alchemist.
Drake grinned grossly at Xan. “Think it’s my smile?”
Xan shook his head politely. “Not at all, Drake. Not at all.”
“So, I found a place to rent in Clerkburg,” Liberty announced. “It’s student housing, for Grey College, but it’s plenty of room for me and not too far from the Great Library.”
“Is the price right for it, Lib?” asked Xan.
“It’s not bad, no. There’s an elven neighborhood just two streets over. Lovely little tea shop where I can sit in the sun and try to make sense of all my notes.”
“Sounds perfect for you.”
“Right?” She grinned at the rogue. “It’s meant to be. Hells, I’d go to that college if I had any kind of mind for it.” Mom grunted to show he was following the conversation.
“I should probably start looking for a place, too,” said Xan. “Once I’m done with my vacation, that is.”
“Tarquin can help you with that. Clerkburg was his idea, for me.” She paused a beat, then changed the subject. “I didn’t have any luck finding Auric. There’s a place called the Green Dragon that he’s found of, but he hasn’t been there in at least a week. Nobody seems to know where he went. Maybe he’s preparing for the games; maybe he’s got a new lady. Or more than one new lady.”
“Hmm … that is definitely strange. He should be gallivanting around town enjoying his fame. Maybe we should look into that?"
Liberty shrugged. “I tried. He’ll turn up. I didn’t find any sign of Khellek or Tirra either.” She sipped at her cider. “What have you fellows been up to?"
“Honestly? I know that once Eligos meets with us, things will probably get more serious. So I have made it a point to relax until then. It’s hard work, I know … but there it is.”
“Oh, I don’t blame you, Xan,” said the sorcerer. “I should really be relaxing, too.” She waved to the elf at the bar. “Just, you know, not yet.” The man waved back then ordered Liberty a drink, inviting her to join him with the subtlest quirk of one of his eyebrows. She gestured him to patience.
“Shopping. Helping out at the temple,” said Mom with a glower for the exchange.
“Looking for a home. Trying to figure out the lay of the alchemist market. Dabbling in a potion or two. Speaking of, I got something for you,” said Drake, pulling out a few ampoules.
“Oh, what’s this, Drake?” asked Liberty.
He handed each of his companions a vial. “For future need.” He explained the effects of each of the magical potions, each tailored to the person.
“Oh, this’ll be very handy,” said the sorcerer. “Thanks, Drake.” Mom chuckled and offered his thanks, as well.
“Wow … nice,” said Xan. “I’ll find a good use for it, I’m sure.” He grinned mischievously.
“Yep. Just some spare time brewing. Thought they might help out later,” said Drake.
“No outside drinks!” Tarquin chided teasingly.
The alchemist turned toward him. “Want an enlargement potion, Tarquin?” he joked.
“Oi! I’m big enough where it counts, laddie!” the gnome retorted merrily, making a crude gesture.
Liberty burst out laughing. “No doubt, Mister Shortstone. Sometimes we hear your thunder rolling as far away as Diamond Lake.” Tarquin guffawed until he could barely breathe.
Mom eyed Drake oddly. “Gotta be a shapeshifter…” he muttered to himself.
Drake made a noise in his throat, like he was clearing it. “I must say, I like that bastard…”
Marta kept their mugs filled throughout the night. The talent onstage was middling at best, but everyone was having such a good time anyway that he received cheers, applause, and generous tips. He had the good grace to look a little embarrassed by it all. Tarquin didn’t spend the whole night behind the bar. He wound his way among the patrons, helping Marta, telling jokes and stories, and making (often lewd) suggestions. It was clear why he was so well-loved by his patrons.
Liberty rose at some point and went to speak with the elf. Xan grew bored and headed up to bed, and Mom lasted a bit longer – casting odd looks at the sorcerer and her elven companion – before following as well. This left Drake to nurse his drink alone near the stage for a time.
Perhaps half an hour later, Mom shuffled back downstairs to the bar, drawing Tarquin’s attention. The gnome smiled genially at the half-orc who leaned down to whisper something to him. Without warning, Mom drove a dagger into the smaller man’s chest. The innkeeper fell without so much as a cry of alarm, though his eyes were wide with surprise. The entire bar froze in shock as the gnome’s body fell to the floor behind the bar, and before anyone could even voice a protest, the half-orc wheeled and hustled back up the crooked stairs.
“Mom, what in the SHIT?!” Liberty exclaimed, leaping to her feet. Drake was standing a moment later and started for the stairs immediately. Before the alchemist could cross the commons, the fat merchant Fargus came stumbling down the steps, eyes wide and staring. Everyone froze again in confusion.
“He just … the blood,” said Fargus helplessly. Then he caught sight of the gnome’s body and gasped. “Murder!” he staggered away from the stairs, looking back at them in fear, until his searching gaze came to rest on Drake and Liberty. “They’ve done this! One of theirs has killed Tarquin!” he exclaimed, wild-eyed. The eyes of the stunned patrons slowly turn toward the pair of adventurers, their expressions darkening with accusation.