Celo’s keen eyes picked out Morath’s palanquin from amidst the throng of travelling merchants, peddlers, commoners and slavers, all with their pack animals and loads. The other three straggled out of the Caravanserai’s tap-room to watch as yard-space and board were argued over. Quite some few of the new arrivals pushed on further into ash-strewn Towban to seek other lodgings. But seeing Celo’s signal, Morath disembarked there, and paid off his porters.
After a few days of difficult riding and a few nights beating off the depredations of wild men driven out of the Karpash Mountains by the eruption, the four travelers – Celo, Vorel, Bardic and Bardic’s hanger-on Cass – had arrived a good half-day ahead of the caravan. They had looked briefly about town, and had taken the trouble to double-check the tale of troubles they had originally heard from refugees crossing into Brythunia.
Towban, principal town of Mt Apsur region, Zamora, had been rocked by earthquakes as Mt Apsur erupted. The townsfolk evacuated, fearing to be caught in ash or lava. Evacuees were attacked, and some children kidnapped. The kidnappers seemed organized, but the children were not from wealthy families. One of the kidnappers had been killed by militia on the scene. A reward was on offer for the others, dead or alive.
The New Boss
Morath’s News: Morath had been hunted night and day by assassins. He was no grand inquisitor but eventually just cleaning the blood off his knives got tiresome and he paused to question a survivor. Repeating this process several times led him to the town of Towban in Zamora’s north.
“So, are you interested in paying us to help you with this problem?” – Bardic
“That’s a bit mercenary of you! I would expect it from Celo…” – Morath, protesting
“I recall you charging thousands to help your friend Edric” – Bardic
“Heh, that was different… Oh very well, let’s talk price” – Morath
After some awkward dickering Morath slapped down 20 silvers as up-front payment. It was excessively cheap, he knew and everyone else knew, but he did not know what expenses would be his. He immediately learned more about that, as he also paid for lodgings. Still, if they did have success against these kidnappers, he could claim half the reward and pay them from that.
Morath’s new hirelings had told him about the militia incident and they all set out to find out more about it. “Militia HQ” was the town barracks and dungeon. Below ground, paupers and debtors were locked up with drunks, the insane, and other “social criminals.” The militia barracks, above-ground, was a sturdily-walled enclosure containing bunkhouse, stables, admin block.
Learning that one Thornley was the man that took down the kidnapper, and that he finished his watch late, they headed back to the Caravanserai. Morath briefed them to be on the lookout for a priest of Bel named Temar, who might be waiting for him here.
They used the few hours intervening to check equipment and rest. Cass in particular was glad of that – no great horsewoman or outdoorswoman, she had struggled with the rigors of crossing the pass and defending from night attacks. She had maintained her disguise however, used to a strict discipline of keeping in character. So Morath remained none the wiser as to her sex or true identity. As far as he knew, Cass had the same sneak-thief skills as Yemmi, so might be an asset.
The sign of the Flame Knife
“The looters? Yes, terrible… like a plague of rats, gobbling up the hard-earned wealth of the town. They carried small darts, poisoned, and killed some of us… I brought one down. Odd – he was bald under his cap. With a tattoo like a lightning strike on his scalp” – Militiaman Thornley
Thornley swigged the ale he had been stood in return for his snippet of information. He had not heard any rumors that would connect Towban’s looters with a cult, but did recall a merchant stopping by around the time of the earthquake.
He also assured his interlocutors that they need not trust to his own recollection of the dead man. Towban boasted an embalmer, who had paid a small fee for the privilege of owning the corpse.
Feeling that there was no time like the present, the five trooped back down the slope, ash sifting over their boots, found the embalmer’s emporium of curiosities, and knocked. After some time, it opened enough for the owner to peer out. He was a curious-looking type himself: slightly askew as to face, spine, and manner.
“What do you want at this hour?” – Embalmer (speaking Zamoran)
“We seek to view the body of the kidnapper” – Vorel, confidently (speaking Zingaran)
“What? What kind of language is that? Your mother’s goat’s tongue?” – Embalmer (speaking Zamoran)
Celo and Bardic were puzzled – Vorel’s easy politeness was obvious. They had even understood what he said – curious how Zamoran sounded so much like Zingaran!
“We seek to view the body of the kidnapper, and I have money to compensate for troubling you” – Morath (speaking Zamoran)
Soothed by the prospect of coin, the Embalmer gestured them in and proudly showed them his “family friendly” front parlor, fitted out with a few stuffed vermin and curiosities. He explained why he took the chance of acquiring the kidnapper’s corpse:
“Part of it was, I don’t get so many chances to practice on corpses with no important relative to complain about how it don’t look like the deceased, or looks too much like. Part of it was, I realized I could show the body off, for coin. So yes, you can see it –10 silver apiece will get you access to my special viewing chamber” – Embalmer
Horrified, Morath decided to pay for only two: he and Celo. The Embalmer led them through to the viewing chamber. The interior of the viewing chamber was a little roomier than it first appeared, though with suspended birds, mounted animals, and stands of curiosities, it felt cluttered. It also felt like a chamber of horrors, for as he led the pair deeper into the viewing chamber he showed them local bandits, murderers, poisoners and even a killer bear, all carefully mounted with inscriptions as to their crime and circumstances. The older examples were stiffly posed and unnatural, but the more recent ones were quite lifelike and even posed in sinister stances, their glass eyes seeming to mockingly conceal blasphemous lore.
The looter had just come on display. The embalmer boasted about what a fine job he had done, and indeed, they could almost swear the dark-clad, stooped figure glancing over its shoulder under muffling cap and cloak was in the act of fleeing.
Examining the bald pate under its muffling hood confirmed that a double flame knife had been tattooed there. The other significant detail was that the looter has lost two fingers on his left hand, long before his demise, and had a brand on his neck. It rang a bell with Morath, but not a loud one.
Rejoining the others they left for their lodging. Morath had to confess he was out of leads. For their part, the others could suggest that as the consensus of the militia was that the kidnappers left south, they may as well try south.
“I wonder how far south?” – Morath
“Well, you know the country. What’s south?” – Vorel
“Koth? Stygia?” – Bardic, helpfully
“All of Zamora, mostly. If they stuck to the high road they’d get to Yezud… but I’ve never heard the spider-god wants child victims” – Morath
“No, this all sounds a lot like the set-up in Zingara. Kidnap children of humble families whose complaints won’t be followed up, and use ruined men from the shadows of the scaffold as your kidnap crew” – Bardic
“Mmmh. So south… a few cities… and Shadizar of course. Brrhh! Even the thought of it makes my skin crawl! I swore I’d never return!”
The Flame Knife strikes!
The White Wyvern was an affordable inn, no more run-down than most, in the northern-most ward of Shadizar. Travelers arrived from the north, tired after the long trek across what could best be termed desert. The Wyvern boasted good, well-stocked stables where mounts could be properly tended and brought back to fettle.
Morath, even more sour than usual at the Fates that had led him back to the city he so earnestly desired never to return to, hired a common room for the whole party. Bardic offered to stand watch in the stables: the mounts were by far the most valuable thing anyone possessed.
In the deep of night, Celo awoke, sensing an intruder in the room. Yelling in alarm, he leapt up, grabbing at his money pouch and knife!
The intruder backed off quickly, holding up his hands to show his peaceful intent:
“Wrong room! Sorry! No need to shout!”
Celo lunged at him, blade-uppermost, intending to score a deadly stroke, but the darkness fooled his thrust. As the man twisted aside and ducked for the door, Vorel too pushed himself out of bed and dived at the door, intending to slam it shut. He missed, banging a shoulder into it with a smart jarring. Then it was Morath’s turn: lunging out of bed, though impeded by the blanket tangling in his armor (for being Morath he had not taken off more than boots and helm) he managed to tackle the intruder enough to topple him sideways! A burning sensation ran from Morath’s ribs, up his spine and into his limbs, but he shook off the pain and continued the fight! Vorel pushed the door shut with a bang. The intruder was trapped!
Below in the stables, Bardic heard the commotion and tensed, senses alert. Was that the stealthy movement of several feet?