Some monsters – aren’t.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
The moment the fancy fop was out of hearing, Aaren stood up quickly. “Rontoffer could be pushing us into a trap but I get the feeling he’s not. Aside from using us to win a bet, I think he was on the up and up.” He glanced sideways at Mira.
She nodded. “That’s my gut reaction too.”
“Thanks. That means we have to move fast. We’re facing the strongest enemies we’ve ever encountered, on their home territory, without time for adequate planning, so we need to vote on it. Comments anyone?” He looked around expectantly.
Although they were frowning, none of them spoke or offered any opinions.
He tried to drag it out of them. “Horace? Can you come up with an attack plan on the run?”
He tugged thoughtfully on his beard. “I’ll do the best I can, but it may be nothing more than, ‘get them!’.”
“Do the best you can. Jon? Are we going to need money for this?”
The rogue colored slightly. “I doubt it. A handful of crowns for each of us maybe, but nothing major.”
The mage shook his head.
They both shook their heads.
“Alright then. All in favor of attacking tonight, raise your hands.”
Six hands went up.
No one moved.
“Good. Let’s go below and get ready.” He raised his voice. “Garrick!”
After explaining the sudden change in plans to the Garrick they hurried to their cabins, collected their gear and weapons, and assembled back on the main deck. One of the crewmen was sent to fetch hot food and they ate it standing up. They also told him to bring some trail rations. They didn’t know how long it would be until they were back and could eat a proper meal.
Aaren gave orders while they were eating.
“Elric, give the flying boots to Jon. If an invisible point man is good, an aerial one is even better. Right, Horace?”
The fighter nodded emphatically as he shoveled food in his mouth.
“Mira, you’ll carry those healing potions we found.” She started to object but he cut her off. “We don’t want all of our healing power concentrated with one person. If anything happens to me, you’ll still be able to heal each other.”
“Or you,” she interjected hotly.
“Or me,” he conceded. “You’ll also have those three arrows. We may not get more than one chance at that stinking vampire, so make ’em count.”
She nodded grimly.
“Katrina, give the exploding necklace to Elric then stick to him like glue. Keep everyone away from him so he can concentrate on his spells. If he buys the farm it’s up to you to use those beads on Blanrus or Altman.”
“Horace, I want you close to me. I’ll need your advice. When we’re in combat, and I expect a lot of that, you’re in charge.” He looked around. “Everyone hear that? Horace is in command when we’re fighting, no questions asked.”
“We won’t have time,” Jon said quietly.
“The rest of the time, I’m in charge,” Aaren said, ignoring the rogue’s comment. “If I buy it, it falls to Mira, and from her to Horace.”
“And after that?” Katrina asked softly.
He regarded her seriously for a moment before answering. “Run.”
They digested that in silence.
“Hey,” he said, trying to break the mood, “let’s just make sure it doesn’t come to that.”
“Right,” Horace chimed in. “If we work as a team, smart and fast, we can pull it off. Remember, we’re not trying to conquer ’em or anything, it’s a rescue mission. In and out like a bunny rabbit.”
“Crude as always,” Jon commented sourly.
“But accurate,” countered Aaren. “The faster we move, the better.” He glanced out the window. Harpel’s slow rotation had turned the bottom side toward the sun, throwing the city into darkness. Except for a few scattered lights, it was black as midnight. “And speaking of moving, let’s go.”
They tossed their plates aside and caught up their supplies and weapons. Their extra gear was stashed in small, soft packs and slung over their shoulders, cinched down out of the way. Horace drew on his helmet and slammed down the visor with a hollow clang.
Following Aaren, they left the ship and wound their way through the streets. It was still early evening and the streets were far from empty. Gaping strollers took one look at their warlike appearance and hurried to get out of their way. Consequently, they made excellent time and arrived at the clothing store in short order.
Except for the fact it was closed and locked, it hadn’t changed from earlier in the day when they’d looked it over. They piled into the secluded shadows of the doorway. Aaren jerked a thumb at the lock and Jon bent down obediently. The rest of them kept watch while he worked. There was a barely audible series of clicks and scrapes and the door swung open. Jon straightened up and put away his thieving tools.
As they started to go in, a voice from across the street stopped them cold. “Why you break into store?” The voice was heavy and deep, as if a mountain had spoken.
They turned tensely to confront their questioner.
It was a huge humanoid fighter, half-human and half-ogre from the look of him. Mira tried to imagine what kind of person, male or female, would want to mate with an ogre to produce the hulking creature they were looking at. On second thought, she decided she didn’t want to know.
The massive creature moved out of the shadowed doorway where he’d been standing and crossed toward them soundlessly. Like all of the warriors they’d seen earlier, he wore full field plate armor. The chest plate was decorated with sparkling medals. A massive sword hung on one side and across from it, an equally massive war axe.
They crouched over their weapons. “That’s our business, not yours,” Horace warned hollowly from the depths of his helmet. “Don’t try to stop us.”
The huge man ignored the menace in his voice and came closer. “You go to fight warriors who live under store,” he stated flatly. “What for?”
“I don’t believe this,” Katrina grumbled under her breath. “Is everybody in the whole town watching us?”
Aaren relaxed fractionally at the man’s casual tone. “What do you know about them?”
“Good fighters,” he rumbled happily. “Lots of fun.”
“Fun fighting them. Good fight.”
Horace pushed his visor back. “You enjoy fighting?”
“Gronk love fighting! What else is life for? Fight, make love, and fight more. HA!” The half-ogre, whose name, apparently, was Gronk, paused and thought about it. “Fight for money even better,” he added in his thunder-like voice.
Mira’s eyes widened. “Fight for how much money?” she asked him.
Gronk cocked his head. “How much you pay?”
She opened her mouth but nothing came out. She closed it and looked helplessly at her companions. They were as confused as she was. She tried again. “Uh, excuse us for a moment.”
She pulled her friends into a huddle. “He thinks I just offered him a job!” she exclaimed in a tight whisper. “What do we do?”
Katrina was having fits. “You sure have a way with the men,” she giggled. “Less than a few heartbeats and he wants to follow you already.”
“Come on! This is serious! How do we get rid of him?”
“Who says we have to get rid of him?” Jon offered. “This guy is a half-ogre! He’s probably stronger than any two of us put together. He might come in handy.”
“You mean hire him?” Horace frowned. “How do you know we can trust him?”
“I ran into a couple of them while I was contacting Sithfarith. The locals say that these guys are loyal to the death to whoever hires them. That’s how they make all their money, they’re mercenaries. It’s a point of pride with them.”
At the word ‘mercenaries’, Horace’s eyes widened in respect. “Oh yeah?” he breathed, looking at the hulking creature with new eyes.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.” He nudged Aaren. “What do you say?”
“It’s alright by me,” Elric said.
“Me too,” Mira and Katrina added together.
Aaren shrugged. “Sure, why not? Let’s hire him.” They turned to Gronk, still patiently waiting for them. “How about ten gold pieces a day,” he offered.
Gronk smiled broadly. “Okay!” He pulled out his sword and axe, brandishing one in each hand.
Aaren introduced the Knights to him then said, “Let’s get going then. It’s getting late and we’ve got things to do.”
Using his flying boots, Jon rose up in the air, muttered a command word, and turned invisible. A moment later his voice drifted out to them in a ghostly whisper. “All clear in here.”
Aaren nodded silently at his companions and they darted in, one at a time, Gronk bringing up the rear. For all of his great size and bulk, the strange creature moved with near-perfect stealth. He closed the door gently behind him and moved up against the wall with the rest of them.
The store was dark and silent, racks of clothes stretching back out of sight in the gloom. It was about 25 cubits across and twice that in length, they remembered from their daytime excursion. The construction was heavy-beamed ceiling and walls with stone flagging underfoot. Threadbare rugs were thrown here and there, a forlorn attempt at decoration.
Aaren raised his voice to a carrying hiss. “Jon! Is anyone back in the office?”
“Let me check,” came the soft reply.
After a long moment, he called to them from the back of the store. “This place is deserted. Come on back.”
They trotted through the long aisles, ducking whenever they passed a window, using the tightly packed clothes for cover. At the rear of the store was a combination storeroom and office. Bales and boxes were stacked along two walls and part of a third. A broad workbench dominated the fourth wall. It was littered with bits of cloth, thread, scissors, needles, and assorted straight pins and clips. A circular rug lay in the center of the floor, a sewing dummy and model stand in the middle of it.
“The trap door is under the rug,” Jon’s voice told them.
Aaren slid his hammer into its holder and grabbed the sewing dummy. “Horace, Gronk. Get ready in case anyone’s down there when I open it.”
The fighter lowered his visor and moved in, sword at the ready. Gronk stood facing him on the other side of the rug, both his weapons held high.
Mira swung the stand out of the way and stood back as Aaren flipped the rug back. Underneath was a large, wooden door set flush with the floor, an iron pull ring recessed in the wood. He reached down and grabbed the ring. He looked up. “Ready?” His companions nodded tensely. Mira backed up, an arrow nocked and drawn.
“On three,” he said.
He yanked the door up and spun out of the way.
Holding his hammer, he peered cautiously down into the opening. A set of steep stairs, dimly visible, led down into the inky darkness. A cool, damp odor wafted up from below.
“Looks like everyone’s asleep,” Katrina muttered.
“Don’t bet on it,” Mira told her. “It’s still early.”
“Elric, we need some light,” Aaren called softly. “Not too bright though. Have you got anything?”
“I’ve got something in my thieving tools,” Jon’s voice interrupted before Elric could answer. There was a sound of someone rummaging in a pouch then a faint, blue pencil of light appeared in the air. “How’s that?”
“Great,” Horace said sarcastically. “Now we can see right where you are, invisible or not.”
The little light tumbled through the air, a tiny stick now visible as the source, and bounced off Horace’s armor with a clink.
“Can you see me now?” the rogue chortled softly.
Aaren bent and scooped up the light. “Knock it off, you two!” He held the light over the stairs. It went down about 15 cubits then leveled off going to the north. The passage, what he could see of it, was broad and smooth. Although it was obviously natural, to begin with, it had just as obviously been expanded by man.
“Jon, take a look.”
A minute later he called up, “It’s okay, come on down.”
Aaren locked eyes with his companions. “Well gang, this is it. Let’s do it right.” He stuck out his hand. Horace grabbed it, then Katrina and Mira. Elric and Gronk joined hands with them, then Jon reappeared and added his hand to the stack. Their faces were flushed with excitement and their eyes sparkled. They grinned at each other and gave a quiet shout, “Let’s go!”
Jon flew down the tunnel and disappeared. One by one they followed him into the depths. The trap door banged down behind them, kicking up a brief flurry of dust. The motes swirled gently in the moonlight streaming in from the window, then settled to the floor and silence reigned supreme.