“You take that one,” Ardal said. The streets of the town were bustling. A few chickens could be seen walking amidst the muddy ground near the feet of the walkers. A minstrel played a mandolin beneath an inn’s sign and street vendors sold fish, vegetables, and potions.
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“The old one?” Jin asked, “Or the fat one with the scimitar?” Jin’s ears were pointed and he wore a black cloak. His eyes were solid yellow and his hair was grey. He wore a hilted dagger at his side.
“The scimitar,” Ardal said, “he’s probably a royal guard off duty. Take the pouch at his back. King Aneurin pays well.” Ardal was tall and wore a black cloak. He was a human with black hair, three golden rings pierced through one ear, and a dagger sheathed at his ankle.
“I’ll get him,” Jin said. The target turned around a building’s corner and Jin worked his way through the crowd. Ardal stopped and crouched at an opposite wall of the building. Soon Jin rounded the building and threw Ardal the pouch.
“I love that clinking sound,” Ardal said, “gold coins—delicious.”
The two found their way to the nearest sewer entrance and climbed in. They traced the tunnels in the darkness for a time. Soon they reached an area lit by some distant grates that touched the surface of the city streets. Two straw beds lay in the dim light in addition to food scraps and loot. The area was piled high with gold and silver coins, jewelry with precious stones, and ornate weaponry. Ardal dumped the contents of the pouch onto the heap. Gold coins fell out in addition to a platinum-lined liquor flask. Ardal picked up the flask and took a swig. “Aldross whisky,” Ardal said, “has a nice kick.”
“He probably got it during a hunt in the mountains up in Aldross, when Aneurin was looking to eradicate the mountain witches.” Jin’s eyes stayed bright yellow in the dimness.
“I’ll tell you what I saw the other day,” Ardal said, “I was sitting on the top of Lars’s Inn and Tavern and I noticed this hunchbacked old man walking by. He used a nicely carved cane and some kind of pink, exotic bird was on his shoulder. He was also covered with pouches and a backpack. I figured him for a visiting merchant and followed him from the rooftops. I saw him make a sale in an alley corner to some hag, he pulled what looked like a stone out of one of those pouches and gave it to her in the trade. I came to wonder, are all those bags filled with similar stones? It wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Perhaps the stones carry some kind of charm,” Jin suggested.
“It’s possible. I’ve never seen the old goat before. He’s probably from one of the western isles.”
“Think we could get him?” Jin asked.
“I think my dagger would fit nicely between his back ribs,” Ardal said.
“We’ll comb all of Quinlan tomorrow, he’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”
Ardal stole an apple from a merchant stand before he and Jin climbed onto the back of an ox cart and surveyed the streets. Jin saw a blacksmith forging a battleaxe under a straw pavilion. Ardal saw a farmer trying to sell pig’s feet and cow tongue on a wooden table. After a time, they jumped off the cart and ran into the town slums. They passed bandits and prostitutes (all of which knew them) and entered a dilapidated building. Old hags were brewing potions and practicing charms. Ardal walked up to one who was standing above a kettle and had just thrown a human eye into the concoction. “Ardal and Jin, to what do I owe this bother?” The woman croaked.
“It’s nice to see you too, Sina. We’re looking for someone, a visiting merchant selling charmed gemstones. You bought any?”
“I know who you’re talking about,” Sina said. “Not me, but I know a few who have. The stones help enhance our own personal charms. One of my acquaintances has just successfully raised the corpse of a Quinlan soldier who’s been buried 30 years. She has a nice servant and guard now, though he’s all bones.”
“Any idea where we can find the merchant?” Jin asked, a few feet behind Ardal.
“I wouldn’t rob him, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Sina said, “Someone like that probably has some defenses. And besides, its just plain rude to rob guests of our nice city.”
“We want to be customers, not thieves,” Ardal said. He tossed Sina a gold coin. She put it in a clay jar on a shelf above her.
“He’s roaming the city for now,” Sina said. “He’s going to visit Aneurin’s palace wizards I’d guess. Maybe even give Aneurin a nice token to weld onto one of his swords. Once he makes the rounds he might go east to Wisia to make some sales to the goblin shamans. Look for him in the taverns at night too. He shows up at Lar’s every once in a while and orders a few pints of ale.”
“I could use a pint myself,” Ardal said.
“Maybe we’ll meet him there,” Jin said.
At the tavern, Jin sipped a bright red, frothing liquor in a crystal cup. Ardal sipped a pint of ale in a large, glass mug. “I’d drink Shade’s Death if it wouldn’t burn away my stomach,” Ardal said.
“A drink only fit for a dark elf,” Jin said.
There was a burning fireplace in a corner of the tavern, giving off a soothing heat. A company of dwarfs sat at one table and a large Ogre and two men dressed in black armor sat at another. In a corner of the tavern a familiar looking minstrel playing a familiar sounding song (this was a song composed and written from the magic that controls all of the natural forces in Luria, and anyone born in the world would find it faintly familiar). Jin also noted peasants, merchants, and farmers all mingling. They would talk about the far off kingdoms as well as personal matters such as taxes, business, and prayers to Althea.
“Have a look,” Jin said, nodding to the door. A short man wearing white, golden stitched robs walked in the door. He was giving off a bright, white radiance and made Ardal squint.
“Looks like Cayden’s got a bit of a power boost,” Arden said. “A cleric with that kind of power could raise the dead, if it weren’t forbidden by those of the white arts.” Jin drained the last of his drink and the two walked to Cayden’s spot at the bar. Cayden wasn’t drinking, but was talking with Lar (who was tending for the night). Lar was short, skinny, old, human, and wore golden spectacles.
“…Business is fine. My concern is the damned rats that the hags let loose outside my place just to turn me red…” Lar stopped talking when the two approached.
“Can I see the stone?” Ardal asked as he stood behind Cayden.
“I’ll show you if you promise to scram. Althea hates thieves.” Cayden pulled a perfectly round, white, glowing stone out of an inside pocket in his robe.
“Tell us where we can find him,” Jin said.
“So you can pilfer him? I wouldn’t think of it.”
Ardal felt his side and realized that his dagger was missing. “Ack, you see what happened?”
“Looks like we aren’t the best thieves in Quinlan,” Jin said.
“I just saw someone walk out the door. Maybe you can catch him,” Cayden said.
“There’s no one out here,” Jin said.
“That we can see,” Ardal said. The two began to walk to the sewers when Ardal’s dagger seemed to fall from the sky and stake in the ground. They stopped and a black skinned goblin jumped from a roof and stood in front of them.
“Call me Lel. I’ll have you look at this.” The goblin took a jagged, black stone out of his pocket and melted with the nearby shadows.
“I want one,” Jin said.
“Where can we find him?” Ardal asked. He tossed Lel a gold coin.
“I’m not from around these parts,” Lel said, “its hard to say for sure…” Ardal flipped him another coin.
“Follow me,” the goblin said.
King Aneurin’s palace could be seen lit up in the distance, on the outskirts of the town. The Quinlan streets were yellowish brick that seemed black in the night. Lel led the company past shops, empty merchant stands, and villager houses. Jin spotted a black, round, furry creature with a tail scurry into one of the sewers.
“We’ve got a Gak infestation in the sewers now, how delightful,” Jin said.
“It won’t be delightful if the Gaks find where we sleep,” Ardal said.
“I just ate some fried Gak last night,” Lel said, “tasted like sour chicken.”
The three continued to walk until they’d reached an area consisting of multiple small farms with one or two animals and some land plots. Lel led them to a farmer’s house and pointed to a small shed. “He’s locked himself and his stones in a cage in there that was once used for dogs. He paid Farmer Miller to clean it up and put a bed in there for him, let him sleep without anyone knowing. Couldn’t hide it from me of course. Not with that kind of loot. All I ask is for you to save a few stones for me. And don’t kill the bird, it’s priceless.”
“I can pick the lock,” Jin said.
“I’ll cover his mouth before he screams,” Ardal said.
“I’ll see you two around,” Lel said. He seemed to disappear as the two headed to the shed.
They entered the shed and saw the old man sleeping. He was plump with a bulging stomach and a beard. Inside the cage an ornate bed with leather furniture, precious ornaments, and even a golden statue of Althea was placed on top of the hay in his cage. Two cows, a goat, and a pig all strode around in the open area of the building and Jin passed them and began to work on the lock. The merchant’s bird slept standing up on a nest of hay in a corner. It’s pink was neon and it had a yellow stripe going down its tail. The thieves did not wake it up until they opened the cage door, and it began squawking. The merchant woke up. Ardal threw his knife at the bird and impaled it, ending the noise.
“So you’ve come here to rob me, and murder my pet.” His eyes were wide. Ardal pulled his knife out of the bird. “Take everything then. I have no weapons. Just leave me be.” The merchant began to stack different sized pouches, satchels, backpacks, and bags all in a pile. It seemed uncanny that such a small, frail man could carry such a large load on his daily rounds. After a few minutes the pile reached nearly to Ardal’s waist. “There, that’s all of it,” the merchant said.
“We aren’t quite finished yet,” Jin said.
“We can’t have you reporting us to Anuerin. Every bounty hunter in the city would be salivating. Sorry about this.” Jin swung the cage door shut before the merchant could run and Ardal chased him into a corner. After a half dozen stabs, the merchant lay in a bloody heap on the floor. Some of the blood reached the pile of loot.
Back in the sewers the thieves made a special pile with the new loot. A large stack of stones was piled high. The stones varied in every possible color and shape. Some were jagged, oval, or perfect spheres. Others seemed to have been forged into shapes. One was a perfect cube and one was hexagon. Some glowed with their color and some were near invisible (you had to see an odd shape in the stack and pick it up with your hand to realize it was there).
Over the next few weeks the thieves began selling the loot to various parties. One sale was made to soldier from a distant town:
“This one will boost your strength,” Jin told him in the corner of a Quinlan tavern. The soldier was a white skinned human with a long sword sheathed on his back. The sword was ornate, so Jin took him for a royal guard.
“How so? Could I lift a horse cart?”
“No, but you won’t feel any of your wounds. You can still bleed and die, but you’ll keep fighting if you want to.”
Another sale was made to one of King Anuerin’s wizards:
“How will my powers change?” the wizard asked. He was skinny, brown haired, and wore a dark red cloak. He and Ardal stood in an alley behind an inn near the palace gates.
“Do you prefer to harness fire?” Ardal asked. “Hold this stone and try.” Ardal handed him an opaque, red stone. The wizard held it and held his other hand toward the sky. A pillar of flame burst from his fingertips like a massive cannon. The pillar stayed constant as far as they could see and lit up the sky.
Ardal and Jin also made a sale to the town undertaker:
“I want to stop the Gaks from eating my dead,” the undertaker said. He wore a black suit and top hat. He also wore a long, scraggly, black beard. “The vermin crawl up from the sewers looking for food. They dig up the newly dead and eat the rotting flesh. I killed one with a shovel the other day, but every time a kill ‘em more come back.” Ardal, Jin, and the undertaker stood in an operations house at the edge of the Quinlan cemetery.
“This’ll keep them away,” Jin said as he put a glowing, white stone on the undertaker’s desk. The stone lit up the room with brightness in the night.
“Gaks can’t go near these.” Ardal said. “It’s a holy light stone. Clerics love them.”
Back in the sewers Ardal and Jin dumped more coins onto their pile of loot. They had just sold a group of nomadic gypsies some stones that would attract animals while hunting.
“That was the last of them,” Jin said. Only two stones remained. One was a light stone the two kept at the edge of their living quarters. The other was a large, black stone they’d found at the bottom of the pile. The stone looked to be hollow inside with a crystalline edge.
“I can’t figure out what this one does,” Ardal said. “I’ve played with it before. It doesn’t seem to enhance or attract, deter or anything.” Ardal picked it up in his hands. It was about the size of an ostrich egg.
“I guess only the old man knows, or will ever know. I’ll have a look,” Jin said. Jin reached for the stone. As he touched it at the same time as Ardal it glowed a strong purple.
“I can feel some sort of power rising,” Ardal said. A force of wind blasted from the stone into the den. The thieves’ items lifted and scattered in a vortex that encompassed their living quarters. Coins were swirling like snow in a blizzard. “I should have thought of it before,” Ardal said, “It’s a portal stone. A trap I’d guess.” The den dematerialized and the two were tossed like rag dolls through a swirling blackness.
When they awoke they found themselves on a pebble beach. Ardal opened his eyes and Jin was already standing, surveying the landscape. The beach had skulls and bones from multiple creatures scattered throughout the stones. The sky was red with yellow clouds and an active volcano could be seen across the sea, spewing lava hundreds of feet into the air. The ocean they were next to was composed of a black, thick fluid.
“We are in Cairne’s plain of despair.” Jin groaned, “The wizards of my race can portal here. There is no escape for us though.”
“I’ve never heard of this place,” Ardal said. “Who is Cairne? Does his power rival that of Althea?”
“No god matches Althea. Cairne is the force that gives despair to those cursed by the black arts. He is a god of misery, and that merchant’s stone will soon give us misery beyond any we ever have imagined. He had defenses after all, it seems.”
A tall, black, skinny creature rose out of the ocean. It had red eyes sunk into a skull-like face and its rib cage was protruding beneath its black skin. It had long, fingers with curled sharp nails.
“Better get used to running,” Jin said. The two sprinted, their black cloaks flowing behind them. Ardal put up his hood.
“Run for that crag up there,” Ardal said. He pointed to a long rock pass.
“Yes. It’ll buy us some time.”
A leech-like creature burrowed itself out of the ground and began to follow them. It was twice as long as a horse, grey, and had razor teeth the size of a large rat. It rolled and clamped its teeth close behind them and caused dirt and rocks to fly in all directions.
“It’s hungry,” Jin said.
“Let’s not feed it,” Ardal said.
They made it to the rocks and found their way into a crevasse. They were hit with dirt and soot, and Ardal coughed.
“The bugger can’t get us now,” Ardal said as he watched the leech thrash and bite at the entrance to the cave. The area was pitch black and the thieves walked forward.
“I can’t see a damned thing,” Ardal said.
“Allow my eyes to guide you,” Jin said. “Just grab hold of the back of my cloak.”
At times they found themselves crouching and crawling to get through tight spaces. At one point the two were pressed against the cave walls on both sides in a tight corridor. “Why do I get the feeling we’re moving downward?” Ardal asked, barely able to breathe.
“Because be are,” Jin said.
“And the temperature is rising,” Ardal said.
“Well, we can’t get out the way we came. We’d best keep going and try to look for an escape.”
The thieves continued to walk for hours. Sometimes they had to climb over boulders, and times came when they had to swim through the black ooze substance they had seen on the surface. Once, Jin stabbed a small critter with webbed feet and white, pale eyes. He cut it open and a dim light lit the passageway. Jin picked up a handful of the glowing innards of the creature and handed it to Ardal.
“Use this so you can see,” Jin said.
The heat continued to increase and Ardal began to sweat buckets. Jin’s foot fell through the ground and he gasped and looked into the cavity. He remained silent and Ardal took a look himself. “We’re doomed,” Ardal said, his voice shaking. In a giant cavern below them thousands of creatures were amassed. Some looked like giant Gaks, with tails and fur and no visible neck. Other creatures that looked like deformed ogres carried makeshift weapons and walked around the bustling cavern. A sea of black snakes swirled around the area.
“Looks like some of them are eating,” Jin said, pointing to a creature that was feasting on a human-like leg. Much of the area was covered by black ooze, and some areas with the ooze were flaming. The rock that composed the cavern was red.
“We’d better run,” Ardal said. They heard a screaming from below.
“One of them has spotted our light,” Jin said. Ardal threw the innards he was carrying against the passage wall and they both sprinted. They could hear creatures running in the passageway ahead of them.
“So this is where beings like us turn out in the end,” Ardal said.
“Can’t say I’m too surprised,” Jin said.
A creature with a black, deformed head and oozing skin caught up with them. It carried a rusty, spiked club and swung it at Ardal. Ardal dodged and slit its throat with his dagger.
“Here comes the gang,” Jin said. The snakes and beasts caught up with them. Jin pulled his knife but was pinned down. Ardal stabbed the stomach of one of the creatures but was quickly harassed by the snakes. “We did not intend to trespass in your world,” Jin groaned. Ardal was pulled away screaming. His wailing echoed down the corridors.
“You will be left to roam,” one of the creatures gurgled. It drooled and had pale eyes. “You are of a composition that bares no need for elimination, an elf that is so prized by Cairne. You will find all you need in the lands outside. Live among us, and despair.”
Jin found his way back out of the cavern. The leech creature was gone, and he was left unmolested by any beast. “It’s as though they are all connected to Cairne’s thoughts, no matter how dumb,” Jin thought to himself. The lands outside were vast and rocky. Yellow lighting struck the ground from the large, yellow clouds. Despite being in the plane for nearly a day, Jin found himself neither thirsty nor hungry. He found himself a small, overhanging rock to sit under and watched the storm. “It’s part of the charm of this place,” Jin thought. “I’ll never have to consume food or drink again.” The winds picked up and many of the pebbles near him were tossed and swirled. “I’ll get used to my new home,” Jin thought. “I’m more powerful now then I ever was. I will bolster Cairne’s power with my presence, and bring more despair Luria.”
Back in Quinlan, a small thief stole a light stone from the sewers.