The Knights froze in their seats. Jon got up, trying to ignore the sudden tension around the table and pulled up another chair. “Please, join us.”
Sithfarith bobbed his head, tentacles waving in the air, and sat carefully. He folded his three-fingered hands, his expression unreadable. “Expecting me not, were your friends,” he observed in a strange, atonal voice.
“Uh, no, I guess not,” the rogue agreed. “You arrived so quickly I didn’t have a chance to tell them.”
“Your people saying have, time is money. Agree, I.”
Aaren felt as though he’d just come in from a sub-zero day in the snow. Judging from the expressions on his friend’s faces they felt the same way. His hands tingled painfully and he started to come back to life.
“We think time is important too,” replied Jon.
“And money. Speaking of which . . .” Jon opened his money belt and poured a handful of coins on the table, “. . . here is the down payment I promised.”
Sithfarith reached across the table and the coins vanished. “Agreed then are we. Work for you, I.”
Mira, shocked like the rest, managed to recover enough to ask, “How much are you charging us?” She tried to conceal her distaste for the creature.
Stark white orbs turned and regarded her. “Name question, you. Name price, I.”
Aaren stirred. “That sounds reasonable,” he said in a strained voice. “But I think we should let Jon do our negotiating for us.” He shot a warning look at the rest of them. They nodded back at him. Horace was white as a sheet but he went along with them, his only concession to fear was the death grip he had on his sword hilt.
Jon lifted an eyebrow at them. “Fine.” He turned to Sithfarith. “We need to find the entrance to a set of underground tunnels.”
The mind flayer ran a tentacle over its face, in a long, almost, caressing gesture. “Tunnels are many. Inhabited are most.”
“Inhabited,” Jon agreed.
“Name have they?”
The rogue cast a quick look around the room and leaned closer. “The Sword.”
Sithfarith’s tentacles quivered. “So, ones are you. Good, this is. Price, one hundred is.”
Jon’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What do you mean ‘we’re the ones’? What ones?”
The mind flayer shrugged faintly. “Story, known is. Fight on Gaia. Victors, you. Revenge, Blanrus seeks. The Knife gives five to one against.”
Horace shook his head in confusion. “What?”
“Everyone knows about our fight with Blanrus and he wants to get back at us,” Jon translated for him.
“But what was that about ‘the Knife’?”
“Probably a bookie.”
“Wonderful,” Katrina quipped, joining the conversation for the first time since Sithfarith had arrived. “We’ll have an audience for our big fight.”
“Where’s the entrance,” Jon asked, trying to steer them back on course.
“Money first,” Sithfarith rejoined.
Jon nodded and dug into his money belt again. He deposited a stack of gold coins on the table. Sithfarith reached for it, but Jon stopped his hand inches from the money.
“Where?” he said in a steely voice.
Sithfarith regarded him for a moment with his strange eyes then acquiesced. “Merc-Town. Loud Bang, two doors from. Clothing store.”
“Loud Bang? What’s that?”
Jon nodded and released Sithfarith’s hand. The mind flayer scooped up his money and tucked it away. He stood up. “Was pleasure, with you doing business.” He bowed faintly and glided away.
The tension level at the table dropped instantly.
“Whew!” exclaimed Elric. “I almost had an accident when he sat down. You could have warned us,” he said accusingly to Jon.
Jon shrugged. “I didn’t have time. You saw how fast he got here.”
“Never mind that,” Aaren interrupted. “How good is the information he gave us? Can we trust it?”
“For a hundred gold pieces it had better be good,” Horace grumbled.
“It’s good,” Jon assured them. “These guys make their living this way. If word got out they were selling bum info, no one would work with them anymore. Their reputation depends on how good everyone thinks their information is.”
“Fine. Then we need to go take a look at this clothing store. Maybe we’ll see a way in or get some more ideas about how to proceed.”
“What happened then?”
“The ‘flayer went straight over to the Knife. Probably wanted to be the first to get his bet in,” Kasrah snickered.
“I don’t care about him!” Blanrus shouted at his diminutive spy. “I want to know about those ‘Knights of Gaia’! What did they do?”
“Sheesh, lighten up will ya?” The halfling hopped up on a chair and grabbed an apple out of the basket in the middle of the table. He took a huge bite and chomped noisily. “They went to check out the ‘flayer’s directions of course. What else could they do?” He sat down and dangled his legs over the side of the table, swinging them idly.
Blanrus ground his teeth in frustration at the halfling’s casual attitude, but he knew the futility of trying to change him. “And then?” he grated with exaggerated patience.
“Ah, they wandered around a while, then went back to the Claw,” he said, referring to the Sky Hawk by its original name. He finished off the first apple and reached for another. Kasrah Toe Feathers was average height for a halfling, with brown hair, bright hazel eyes, and the full appetite his race was famous for.
Blanrus sighed. “Did they go anywhere in particular while they were wandering around Did they talk to anyone? Buy anything maybe?”
Kasrah shook his head around a mouthful of fruit. “Nope. Just wandered around talking to each other.”
Blanrus got up and began pacing around the cavernous room. A fire burned low in the massive fireplace, casting a flickering light over the misshapen table and the chairs grouped around it. Once the underground room had been a training ground for The Sword, but since their drop in numbers, it had been given over to him to use for his magical endeavors. Sounds echoed eerily, bouncing off the far-distant granite walls and ceiling. Except for the circle of light around the fire, the room was pitch black.
Kasrah watched the mage pacing in and out of the shadows, a faint shadow among black ones. “I’ve got men watching the ship,” he called through the darkness. “They’ll let us know if anything happens. You won’t have to worry about being caught by surprise.”
Blanrus laughed evilly in the darkness. “They can attack while I’m asleep for all the difference it’ll make. But I want to watch it to see their pain and defeat! I want them to know I’ve beaten them and won!”
A door banged hollowly and footsteps echoed as a newcomer strode across the floor.
“Hey, Kasrah! Where’s twinkle fingers?” Altman called merrily.
“‘Twinkle fingers’ is right here,” Blanrus said sourly, emerging from the shadows.
“Whoops,” Altman said in a falsely apologetic voice. “Didn’t know you were there. Deeply sorry old boy.”
“Forget it,” the wizard returned shortly. “What do you want?”
“It’s almost sunset. Fangy is gonna be up and around pretty soon. He’ll be terribly hungry by now and I was wondering what you plan to do about it. Wouldn’t do to have him start munching on us, now would it?”
“Don’t worry about Dolgaron, I can handle him,” Blanrus replied easily. “We have several prisoners to feed to him, and if that doesn’t work I can still handle him.” He dismissed the vampire with a wave of his hand. “But what about Bashaak? He should have been here by now.”
Kasrah had gone pale at the mention of the vampire. He didn’t like knowing the horrible monster regarded him as nothing more than a walking meal. It sent shivers down his spine. He latched onto the new topic eagerly. “He should be here anytime.”
“That’s what I just said,” Blanrus frowned at him. “So, where is he?”
“He’s praying,” Altman told him. “I peeked into his room on the way down. He’s just praying up a storm.”
“Probably praying for the return of this,” Blanrus chuckled, holding up the object he’d promised Bashaak in return for his services.
Altman giggled along with him in an eerie counterpoint. Kasrah felt a shiver run up his spine at the sound. He’d be glad when he’d saved enough money to book passage out of here, he thought. The two men gave him the creeps.
A sudden, unseen presence came into the room, bringing with it the smell of dirt and corruption, the stink of the grave. “What do you find so amusing?” A sibilant voice hissed softly from the darkness overhead. “Tell me and perhaps I will laugh also.”
Blanrus tilted his head back and stared at something only he could see. “Join us, Dolgaron. We’ve been waiting for you and Bashaak to arrive.”
Vapor swirled down and gathered on the floor. The temperature dropped sharply and Kasrah clasped his arms around himself. The vapor coalesced and a man in ragged pirate clothes stood before them.
“We meet again, Little One,” the man hissed mockingly at the halfling. “Have you decided to accept my embrace yet?” Fangs glittered in his mouth as he spoke.
A razor-sharp dagger materialized in Kasrah’s hand. “Never!” he spat. “Keep away from me, you monster! You hear me? Keep away!”
The vampire laughed menacingly.
“Leave him alone, Dolgaron,” Blanrus admonished. “We’re supposed to be allies. Please try to act like it.”
“He’s not yet become accustomed to his newfound power,” a new voice told them. They turned to find Bashaak approaching out of the darkness.
Blanrus started in surprise, “How long have you been hiding out there in the dark?”
Bashaak eyed the object in the wizard’s hand. “Not long,” he evaded easily.
Blanrus muttered beneath his breath for a moment then Art filled the room and dozens of torches flared to life. Altman traded an amused glance with Bashaak. Both of them understood the mage was playing a lone hand in spite of his remark about allies. Those who stood with him were there because they had been bought, bribed, or threatened. His sudden distrust of the dark proved the lie in his words.
“Much better,” said the mage in satisfied tones. “Now we can see who’s coming.”
The giant room now lay revealed in the light. Once it had been a training ground for sword practice and archery. Bloodstains on the hard rock underfoot witnessed the fact not all of those training duels had been amicable. Dusty targets lay piled in a heap along one wall and wooden sword racks stood bare and empty along another. The practice dummies that had once occupied the middle of the room were gone, replaced by a black, obsidian altar draped in red. Golden tripods stood at either end, incense holders hung from them by ornate chains. A wooden book stand faced the altar, supporting an ancient, leather-bound book. Beside the stand was a small table laden with instruments of torture, sacrifice, and blackest magic.
Bashaak surveyed the equipment with a professional eye. “Set up already? Prince Urdan’s birthday is over a month away.”
“That’s what he wants everyone to think,” Blanrus told him. “But Urdan is paranoid, he thinks people are after him. He even published a false date for his birthday he’s so scared.” Blanrus smirked at them, “Of course, my Art revealed the truth to me and now I can use it against him.”
“When is his birthday then?” the priest asked with interest.
“The holy man wants his reward,” Dolgaron sneered.
Bashaak’s eyes narrowed murderously but he kept silent.
Blanrus watched this little by-play with keen eyes, then shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t really matter. Tomorrow. Tomorrow is his birthday.”
“Then I can conquer all of Harpel!”