With the Baroness’ parting warning ringing in their ears, and her rough outline of Avron Nistarin’s lair imprinted on their hearts, the five fugitives worked their way down-sewer to a wider, more disgusting sewer, which proved to be the river that took Shadizar’s wastes out. A set of massive iron bars, thick-crusted with the cystic rot of ages of filth, barred the exit.
Bardic probed the bars. He discovered that the lower bars, lying under the sewer level, had rotted away completely.
“I’ll try to bend them – better to scrape through than go dunking myself under the filth of an entire city” – Bardic
With a burst of barbaric fury his thick-corded arms and shoulders bunched and strained, and a bar was pulled aside, leaving enough of a gap for even his mailed deep chest to squeeze through. The others followed. There was a certain amount of passing and supporting as Celo was weakened to the point he needed a shoulder under him, and Vorel was carrying a small mountain of weaponry: Two bows, two swords, and about six quivers and bow-cases. Still, they all safely passed through and out into a stinking swamp of an open river.
Only just in time! Bardic swung about, dropping Celo and drawing his sword, as the skittering of many large paws alerted him to fresh danger! Morath grabbed Celo before he sank into the effluvium, and Vorel watched helplessly, arms full of gear he dare not drop, as Bardic was engulfed by a horde of immense rats!
Shaking off as much of the gore – mostly the rats, but some of it his – as he could, Bardic rejoined them. He could feel the tiredness in his bones, and he was the least weary. Celo looked worse: pale, and shivering now. Dawn had passed to day, but a bleak day: few healthy plants grew alongside the sloughs, and a scattering of ruinous dwellings downstream offered the only shelter. A small community of rag- and corpse-pickers, the people there were not pleased to see living, and poor, and armed, newcomers.
A shabby beggar, seemingly diseased and shaking, crawled near Morath as they waded up onto drier land. It was Temar: the lone loyal fortunate of Bel remaining to the Zamorian rogue. Morath was not sure just why Temar had remained loyal. Perhaps because he was originally a Zuagir, or perhaps because he was gambling on Morath eventually coming out on top. Either way his help was welcome.
Bardic counted over the silver in Gruddart’s purse, and passed one to Temar, who arranged clean water to be brought. While the priest tended Celo the others began laying plans.
“No matter how much strength we regain, I don’t think we have anything that can defeat a Vampire. Unless Temar has some help that Bel can afford us?”- Morath
“Vampire?!? Morath, that’s just a fable, a scary story told to entertain the marks!” – Temar
“These” – grabbing Celo’s head roughly and dragging it round to expose his neck – “no stories? Real!” Vorel, angrily and speaking Zamoran badly
“Stiletto wounds? You’re not helping with his recovery, foreigner” – Temar
Morath assured Temar that the threat was real, and offered belated introductions. Bardic now commandeered the water and gave Cass the bowl and sponge. The pair talked quietly about horses – apparently Cass was worried about leaving their mounts without stable fees – and Bardic handed her three silver pieces for clothing, and three more for stable fees.
In a village that lived by corpse-picking, clothes of all sorts were to be found and by the time a reasonable plan had been agreed, Cass had resumed her disguise as a young man and was ready to set off again for Shadizar. The others also bought clothes with Bardic’s money, and rested up. Celo struggled against the fever all day, tended carefully by Temar, but by nightfall, when Cass returned, he was awake and feeling more alert. He found the others were anxious to move him.
“It’s not just that this is a filthy place, Celo. The hairs at the back of my neck are lifting – I think that Necromancer is scrying us” – Vorel
Using Temar’s knowledge of local geography, the six moved clockwise around Shadizar, out to the nearest caravanserai west of the south-west gate. The place was a cheerful, noisy hubbub: dozens of traders of all shapes and nationalities crowded the serai itself, and dozens of pack animals crowded the yard. The six bargained for a shelter out in the yard, and clean food and water. Plans were laid again. Cass would need to pay for another day of stabling, at least, but this time the mission was to be extended.
“Cass, I think we are going to need as much information as you can get inside the city. This necromancer…” – Bardic
“Shanklin” – Morath
“…must have his lair somewhere. Is it alongside the Vampire? What kind of weaknesses? You know the sort of thing. And maybe that honest priest has some power against evil that has kept him safe?” – Bardic
“We’ll be moving again, I guess. We need some kind of message system to let Cass know where we go. Cass, let me show you some field signs I learned back when I used to take, uh, liberties with hunting preserves back in the Tauran” – Celo
Over the next five days, a series of curious rumors grew up in Shadizar. Daring adventurers sought the life of an evil necromancer named Shanklin! One day, rumor would put the group in the north, another in the east. Authorities were not inclined to act, but as gossip flew from street-market to walled villa, armed squads of city watch were detailed off to arrest trouble-makers and investigate the activities around Cutthroat’s Alley. Oblivious to all this commotion, Rish, the priest of the obscure temple in Cutthroat’s Alley, happily continued to look after children in the area. When questioned by city watch or casual idler, Rish had no secrets to tell them. Nor did the watch find aught amiss in the other buildings of Cutthroat’s Alley, though whether they looked hard is another question.
Cass was able to say more when she returned, once more in male guise. All of Cutthroat’s Alley was one big syndicate. The Taverner, the Baker, the Locksmith – all part of the same organization, the Pillagers. Shanklin the necromancer led a cult associated with it, though it seemed that even he was subordinate to the Prince of Darkness. It was rumored that this cult sacrificed a child once a month, in a secret crypt under Rish’s temple. Not everyone was complicit: the everyday working lads and lasses within the Tavern, Bakery, and Brothel probably knew little; and Rish himself was a dupe.
The four men of vengeance considered their options. Intent on not tackling his nemesis, Morath emphasized the advantage that bringing down Shanklin would have. The others agreed. The obvious places to attack Shanklin were either the temple, or the sewer lair, so they opted for the Brothel-Locksmith complex. Possibly the fairly good information that Cass provided, that the secure vault of the gambling hell was in that area, had something to do with that decision. The idea of using the sewer to assault the Lair – where the Prince of Darkness would be most powerful – and where their weapons might be ruined – and where disease and rats lurked – was discussed but dismissed.
A rooftop assault, and downward breach, was decided, owing to the difficulty barred windows presented. Cass was to arrange tools and a distraction. So, with the last of Bardic’s coin, Cass set off once more.
Rooftop to Locksmith’s
A noisy demonstration – a mob baying for the blood of Shanklin, killer of babies – and the four decrepit traders, pulling and pushing on their hand-wagon, and guarded by one barbarian, drew no eyes as they pulled their cart up alongside the rear of the bakery. A convenient knotted rope dangled from the warehouse and they swarmed up, passing up weapons and tools from the wagon.
Bardic raced along the roof, keeping on the slope away from the alleys and demonstration. Celo and Vorel were not far behind. Cass paused, looked back, and signaled with a low whistle: Morath was slipping on the tiles. Embarrassed, the Zamorian caught up, sparing Cass an evil glance as he passed.
Vorel and Bardic unlimbered their crow-bars and soon ripped away tile and roof-lathe to the attic near the corner of the Locksmith-Brothel complex. Celo slid through, balanced on ceiling lathes he could feel flexing under him, and began quietly drilling a spy-hole down.
“A stairwell. I can hear faint voices, but no-one’s about” – Celo
“Sounds about perfect! Let’s be down then” – Bardic
Celo cut away more of the lathes and dropped nimbly down, using a rafter to change his momentum and land on the top landing of the stairwell. Light came from a south-facing window, in what appeared to be a reasonably well-furnished drawing room. A cabinet, possibly for drinks, and a table, possibly for casual guests, could be seen, as well as a closed door.
“A nice room… a drinks cabinet” – Celo, waiting to let someone else investigate
“That drinks cabinet sounds useful…” Morath, not investigating
The faint sounds of street protest could still be heard below the muffled scraping on the roof: then were drowned out as with a tremendous scraping crash, Bardic hurtled through the ceiling and bounced and rolled down the stairs. His helmet shot off as he did so, landing with a steely clang. A shout of indignant surprise came from below.
Vorel looked around to check their rooftop position. Cass leapt up from her lookout position and sped along the tiles on the balls of her feet, dived head-first down the hole and was lost to view. Morath, left clutching the rafters after Bardic went through the ceiling, dropped down, leaving only Vorel. Shrugging, the Bossonian clutched all of his weaponry and the bow-case he had brought, and jumped. Blackness engulfed him and he landed – hard – on someone. Rolling to his feet, he was in time to catch a faint movement ahead – barely visibly outlined in what must be an exit from the storeroom, as it appeared. Then a steel dart took him in the chest, and Vorel screamed in agony as poison seared through his veins! He rushed the man and struck out – and his sword connected!
Bardic dizzily rose and staggered into the action, aware that Morath and Celo had now descended. By the time he reached the Locksmith, the man was down, and Cass had caught up with him. The pair followed the other three into the Locksmith’s workshop, where a candle-stub was being used to light proper lamps over the well-appointed work-bench. Cass leaned in and murmured:
“What are we doing with the Locksmith?” – Cass
“He’s dead isn’t he?” – Bardic
“No, not quite” – Cass
Vorel writhed in pain again as the poison continued to course through his veins. The injustice of someone he had broken in on intending to kill actually trying to kill him made his blood boil! He noticed Bardic dragging the Locksmith, Gruddart, in.
“Ah, he’s not dead then?” – Morath, finishing selecting thief’s tools
“He’s about to be!” – Vorel
Sweeping his sword out the Bossonian sheared the man’s head from his shoulders. Cass turned pale as blood gouted out, washing over the room.
“We could have learned something from him – like where the antidote is kept!” – Celo
Pausing only to swipe the Locksmith’s keys – left in the workshop – and bar the doors, the rogues pulled clear the secret shelf and opened the trapdoor leading to Gruddart’s armory. Morath checked for traps carefully and descended, followed by the others.
Lighting more lamps and searching, the three unarmored men were delighted to find enough armor of excellent quality to supply them. Vorel squeezed into a reinforced hide jerkin and supplemented it with a steel cap. Celo, who had selected simple leather, was already dressed and searching the walls. If the Pillagers had come at them through the armory, then there had to be a concealed passage.
Bardic realized that Cass had not joined in the search. He found her crouched up against the ladder, pale and shaking, muttering to herself. It sounded like “we weren’t to kill anyone.”
“Cass! You should leave! Head back out to our stables, and ready our mounts so that we can slip away. If I don’t find you, I’m dead. Then you can set out on a life of your own” – Bardic
“But you were to tell me what to do” – Cass
“Damn. I’ll try to get back to you. That’s all I can promise” – Bardic
Locksmith’s to Hell
Morath collected Vorel and Bardic, and although noting Cass’ absence had no time for explanations. He took the lead: the concealed exit revealed a locked door. Having dealt with this, he eased it open. A passage, left to right.
“Take the left” – Bardic
Morath’s own sense of direction told him it made no difference so he paced right, then right again, then along some fifteen paces more to where he could see, in the light Celo held behind him, another right turn. Edging along further, he peered round, and could see doors, set not quite opposite one another, right and left. Conversation could be faintly heard through the left or “outer” door. Morath padded softly along, close to the right-hand or “inner” door: the floor gave way under him and he threw himself back, sprawling away from the black pit: still clutching his sword and ready for trouble!
The slam of the pit trap had alerted those beyond the “outer” door: it was flung open!
“It’s them! Kill them all!” – Pillager
Celo pulled the light back hastily from where he had held it to light Morath’s path. Fooled by the sudden change of light, the first two Pillagers charged into the pit! The third checked and flung a dart at Morath: it struck home and he felt the deep bite of poison! He scrambled and rolled back into cover behind the corner.
An uneasy hush fell: both sides sought to gain some advantage: the Pillagers by encircling, the intruders by waiting at either corner. Vorel swayed on his feet: the big Bossonian was near-dead from the poison. He readied his powerful Hyrkanian bow. He’d take someone with him, by Mitra!
A flurry: an exchange of stabs: Celo, kneeling stabbed up at the Pillager trying to strike him, and sent him back reeling: but he too felt the bite of poison!
At the other corner, Bardic allowed his blood to heat white-hot and leapt forward, struck down one, and leapt back. There were three: the second rolled past the Cimmerian and flung a dart at Vorel, while the third targeted Bardic. The latter was hit again but shrugged off the poison effects, and laid about him with his great brand, leveling the pair. He heard more arriving and raced forward into the darkness, roaring his berserk challenge! Vorel, eager to do more, paced to the corner and strained every muscle in a telling shot: it sank to the fletching in Bardic’s back!
At the first corner, Celo, assisted by Morath, finally laid low the last Pillager. The defenders had left the “outer” door open behind them. The two rogues leapt over the short gap and studied what appeared to be a large office or counting-house room. Many desks stood about, piled with numerous bags, jars, slates, styluses, wax tablets, parchment sheets and other apparatus. This must be the gambling hell’s counting-house, and perhaps also where drugs were prepared for the harlots and customers of the brothel above.
Bardic limped around the next corner: he too had dealt with his last opponent. Vorel, apologetic, stumbled after him, white as a sheet and wheezing. Bardic approached the nearest desk. He was no more illiterate than anyone, he mused. There might be some clue as to what each jar did! And there was! An illustration of a skull, a flower and a mark suggested recovery to him. He proffered it.
“Only one way to find out – and I’m dead without it” – Morath
Sure enough the cordial in the jar proved an antidote. Although three of the four were gravely injured, their next move would not automatically be into the grave!