Monsters were made for killing,
but they might disagree.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
“What’s first?” Katrina asked, turning to other matters. “How do we go about finding the opening to The Sword’s hideout without giving ourselves away?”
Mira caught their attention. “When Ryal first showed us the map of Harpel, the tunnels they use were somewhere off to the west, ten or twelve blocks in from the harbor. Let’s start there.”
Her suggestion sounded as good as anything else they could think of so they headed out. They kept together, aware they stood out as a group but unwilling to split up in possibly hostile territory. They were primarily on the lookout for thieves and pickpockets, in addition to keeping an eye peeled for mercenary types, so they were completely unaware of the diminutive figure following and watching them from the shadows.
They soon found themselves in an area referred to as Merc-Town, after the mercenaries that populated it. “Can you believe this?” Katrina whispered excitedly. “These guys are fantastic!” Her love of anything new and different had overridden her sense of caution.
Another explosion sounded behind them, making their ears ring painfully. Horace winced and glared over his shoulders at the hulking warriors playing with something called Pyrite. Altman had mentioned that his previous ship, the Tamerin, had been carrying a load of it. “I’m glad you like it,” he snarled at Katrina, “because you’re the only one. My ears are killing me! And I’m getting a headache.” A merchant at a meat stand had unbent enough to tell them Pyrite was a recent discovery, a volcanic type of rock that exploded when it was struck with sufficient force.
They all flinched as yet another explosion went off, further up the street. “I feel like a mouse at a cat party,” Aaren agreed.
A brawl spilled out of a bar into the street, some of the combatants coming through the open windows and in one case, through the wall itself. It was the third such fight they’d seen in ten minutes and they simply detoured around it.
“Either I’m crazy or I’m starting to get used to this,” Jon remarked, stepping over a pair of struggling fighters flailing away at each other.
“You’re crazy,” Mira told him shortly.
“Don’t listen to her,” Katrina said sweetly, coming to his defense. “She just doesn’t appreciate new experiences.”
“Neither do I,” Jon replied. He ignored her hurt expression and continued. “Getting used to something doesn’t mean I like it. I can get used to a toothache too, you know.”
“Never mind all that,” Horace growled. “How are we supposed to find the entrance with all this going on? This isn’t a city, it’s a madhouse!”
Aaren started to answer him but Jon beat him to it. “We find an information broker,” he said quickly.
Horace furrowed his brow in puzzlement. “A what?”
“An information broker. Someone who deals in hard-to-get information, for a price of course.” Jon shrugged. “Kinda like I was back in Thorginbelt, only most of them don’t work for the city guard, they work for themselves.”
“What kind of price?” Elric asked cautiously.
“Depends on what is you want to know,” Jon told him, “but mainly it’s expensive, really expensive, and outrageous.”
“That’s comforting,” Aaren muttered in an aside to Mira. He raised his voice. “So, how do we go about finding one of these information brokers?”
“Easiest thing in the world,” Jon grinned at them.
Horace’s eyes glinted dangerously at Jon’s tone. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Just check the nearest bar, that’s where they like to hang out.” Through the windows of the bar directly across the street from where they were standing, they could see a wild brawl erupting. Within seconds every patron in there was involved. “Uh, maybe not the nearest bar,” he corrected himself. “We need one that’s a little less active.”
Katrina ducked as a bottle came flying out of the bar and smashed against the building behind her. “A lot less active,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Mira asked her wickedly as they moved away. “I thought you liked these guys. ‘Fantastic’ was the word that you used if I remember correctly.”
“That was before she almost got beaned,” Elric snickered, brushing pieces of broken glass out of her hair.
They turned a corner and the volume of the surrounding din dropped considerably. They followed the winding street for several more blocks and found themselves in a large market place. Most of the stalls were cheerful and brightly colored, but some of them were drab and gray, with an unassuming, almost, furtive air about them. The crooked streets and alleyways were jammed with thousands of shoppers. The sound of the crowd hit them like a wall.
“This is almost as bad as Merc-Town,” Horace said over the noise.
“It’s not as violent,” Mira told him. “That means it’s better.”
Both of them were right. The noise (barkers hawking their wares, shrieking children, braying horses and mules, people bargaining at the top of their lungs) was nearly as loud as the fighting and explosions in Merc-Town. But the continual violence was thankfully absent. Katrina plucked at a passerby’s sleeve. He paused to answer some question she asked him, then moved on. She turned back to her friend’s curious glances. “He says it’s called the Rogues Market,” she said loudly so all of them could hear. “There’s another further north called the High Market.” On Harpel, ‘north’ was the palace at the top of the central mound. Instead of east and west, the city inhabitants referred to clockwise and counter-clockwise.
Jon smiled broadly. “Then this is where we want to be. We’ll find what we’re looking for over there.” He pointed at a large, wooden building that stood to one side of the flimsy stalls and tents.
Aaren shrugged. “Lead on,” he said with a wave of his hand.
The others nodded their consent so Jon led them through the slow-moving crowd of shoppers until they reached the entrance. A weather-beaten sign overhead was so faded it was indecipherable. Jon laughed and pushed on in, his friends close behind. They paused just inside and let their eyes adjust to the gloom after the fading sunlight outside. Slowly they began to make out the interior of the bar.
The first impression was one of size, the place was huge. It seemed to go back forever. Through the smoky haze, they could see distant archways leading to further rooms where they could just make out dim figures moving about. A group of entertainers – guitarists, drummers, and flute players – held forth on a low stage, leading a large contingent of the patrons in a series of rowdy bar songs. The steady roar of conversation created an ongoing din of noise and confusion to compete with the music. Mugs were thumped on tables to emphasize this point or that around the room and the chink of coins changing hands sounded at regular intervals. In a far corner, a boisterous crowd watched a dagger throwing contest, yelling and cheering their favorites, and roundly booing their opponents. Closer at hand, a scantily clad dancer twirled on a tabletop, silken veils floating behind her as she teased and tantalized a group of men.
But behind the bar was a sight none of them ever expected.
Floating huge and serene, pouring drinks and presiding over a dozen helpers, was one of the feared Eye Tyrants, a Beholder! The round, mauve-colored monster was over four cubits in diameter. It’s central eye, the one that could deal death, stared out over the bar impassively while the eyes on the end of it’s 10 tentacles watched in every other direction.
A patron lurched into Horace, spilling stale beer on him. “Get outta here!” the fighter growled, pushing the man away and wiping fitfully at the spreading stain. “What a wonderful place you’ve brought us to,” he grumbled at Jon. “Do you find these places by sniffing them out, or is it just natural?”
Jon cupped a hand around his ear. “What?” he shouted above the noise.
Horace shook his head and waved it off. “Never mind!” he shouted back. “Just get us a table.”
Jon nodded his comprehension and led them into the gloom. He wound through the dense crowd in the main bar and into one of the back rooms. The noise level dropped immediately and they gasped in relief. He saw a group getting up from a table by the wall and leapt to grab it before anyone else did. The Knights dropped into the other seats. A grungy waiter materialized to collect the mugs and tip left by the previous occupants. He wiped the table indifferently and took their order.
As soon as their drinks were sitting in front of them, Katrina started in. “Did you see that beholder? Tending a bar?” she blurted in shock. “I never heard of such a thing!”
“That’s not all you’ve never heard of,” Mira told her grimly.
“Look.” The tall ranger pointed across the room. They all turned. Following her finger through the dense smoke they saw half a dozen mind flayers sitting at a table, completely at their ease.
Horace’s hand streaked for the hilt of his sword, but Aaren caught his wrist in an iron grip. “No.”
“NO! Use your head for something besides a hat rack for a minute and look around you. Is anyone else upset? Do you see anybody gasping in horror? Is a fight breaking out because of them?” The priest stared hard at him. “Well? Is anything happening because of them?”
Horace slowly conceded the point and shook his head.
“Think!” Aaren pressed him. “They’ve got a beholder tending bar! Why would anyone care about some mind flayers?”
Horace finally relaxed, letting go of his sword. After a moment, Aaren released his wrist and sat back. Horace shook himself and after glaring once more at the mind flayers, he said, “You’re right. I guess I just got carried away. After tangling with that one on their ship, I’m a little paranoid around them.”
“I don’t blame you, but right now we need to stay low, not attract a lot of attention by starting a bar fight our first day in town. Remember Taeljurm?”
Horace exhaled explosively and slumped back in his chair. “Okay,” he sighed.
Aaren turned to Jon. “Now, how do we find one of these information brokers?”
The short rogue bounced to his feet. “Wait here,” he grinned at them. He dove into the crowd and disappeared.
Elric heaved a sigh. “For someone as hidebound and rule struck as he is, he sure gets a kick out of doing his ‘knowledgeable thief’ routine.”
“It’s going to get him in trouble someday,” Katrina nodded.
“Sooner than that,” Aaren said darkly. “I told everyone we weren’t supposed to split up, and what does he do? He runs off alone the first chance he gets!”
“When he gets back I’ll explain it to him,” Horace said absently, still keeping a suspicious eye on the mind flayers.
Since they weren’t sure how long Jon would be gone, they nursed their drinks as slowly as possible, buying new ones now and then to keep the waiter happy. After their third round, Jon suddenly reappeared out of the crowd and dropped into his seat with a sigh. “Suspicious bunch around here,” he exclaimed, quaffing his ale in a single gulp. “I had to make some monetary promises, but I got what I was after.”
Aaren started to upbraid him for leaving the group but Mira cut him off. “You found out where the entrance is? Just like that?”
Jon shook his head and signaled for another ale. “No, of course not. But I got us an appointment with a broker named Sithfarith. That’s what I was after.”
“An appointment?” Katrina blurted. “You took all that time to get an appointment?!” Her astonishment was writ large on her face.
“Yeah, and just how big were these ‘monetary promises’ you made?” added Horace.
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Jon assured him, ignoring Katrina’s comment. “Don’t worry, I brought enough to cover it.” He opened his leather armor just enough to show them the heavy money belt stashed inside.
Aaren nearly turned purple. “You brought extra money?” he exploded. “I said not to!”
“That’s because you don’t know this kind of business,” Jon retorted hotly. “I do! And it’s expensive.”
Mira caught Aaren’s eye and shook her head. “You said we shouldn’t bring any money we didn’t need. Apparently, we needed more than we realized. Leave it alone.”
“I don’t care how much money he brought or didn’t bring,” Aaren retorted. “I’m concerned he didn’t tell anyone. We’re supposed to be a team, and I’m supposed to be the leader. But if we don’t adhere to a chain-of-command we’re going to be in trouble.” He appealed to Horace for support. “Isn’t that right?”
Horace nodded heavily. “First rule of discipline, follow orders or explain why you can’t. If you can’t do that, get out. You’re more dangerous than the enemy otherwise.”
Jon’s face fell. “I wasn’t trying to cause trouble,” he said contritely. “I just knew we needed more money.”
“Fine,” Aaren said, “but tell me next time.”
Jon nodded somberly. “You got it.” He looked past them and his face lit up. “Here comes Sithfarith now.”
A mind flayer marched up to the table and bowed slightly. “Sithfarith you need. Sithfarith you see. Help you I can.”