The Golden Globe is one of the safer inns of Tyr’s Caravan District. Its patrons are a mixture of merchants, guards and adventurers. People, in other words, who are used to looking out for each other out in the desert and can generally be counted on to form a united front against common enemies like thieves and footpads, should they appear. This morning, one of the tables was occupied by four travellers. At a distance, two of them appeared to be elven women; in fact, they were both eladrin. This was a subject of intense gossip among the inn’s staff, as folk from the Lands Within the Wind were hardly ever seen in the city.
One was younger than the other, but carried herself with poise and assurance. She was Naivara J’ayan, daughter of Hadarai J’ayan, a nobleman of Nibenay. Out of habit, she shaded her face with one hand, concealing her features from onlookers, and occasionally glanced about her as if seeking out one who might mean her harm. Her counterpart, a slightly older, exotically beautiful woman, lounged in her chair. She strummed gently on the strings of a lute. “Althaea, put that away. We have business to discuss,” said a male mul in the chair opposite, gesturing impatiently with a muscular arm. He too was the subject of some discussion in the tavern, being the renowned ex-gladiator Maropona. The Tyr Games would be starting soon, and Maropona had more than once had to fend off excited citizens demanding to know if he would be taking part. He had no intention of taking part; he had fought in the arena as a slave, and despite the renown he had won, had decided that that part of his life was over. The fourth person at the table, as usual, was silent, studying the other three. He retained the head-covering that desert travellers wore to keep out blowing sand, and only his intense pupil-less eyes blazed orange-red out from behind the ragged mask. If eladrin were a rare sight in Tyr, sun genasi such as Sha-karn were rarer still.
“Fine,” said Althaea, resting her lute against a table leg and hooking a foot through the strap. “Remember those poor folk we came across in Kled? That town’s virtually a slave camp. How about we free them?” Sha-karn shrugged. “Slaves are everywhere. Why bother with slaves when the very earth we walk is being eaten away by defilers, piece by piece?” He looked at Maropona, who nodded; the warden despised accursed magic. The genasi continued, “Your patron, Lord Rhotan Var – he is interested in seeking the Tree of Life. A tree that never died! Imagine what good its seeds might do.” “Don’t forget that altar he wants to find,” added Maropona, “and don’t forget that gang of assassins he mentioned-“ “The League of Whispers,” murmured Naivara. “Yes, them,” Maropona continued, “they seem to make sure anyone who goes looking for the Tree ends up dead.” “You could always take part in the Games,” Althaea said playfully. “Come on! Surely you aren’t afraid?” Maro folded his arms and frowned. “I thought I’d made things clear. I am not taking part and that’s it.” The table was once again silent. Eventually Naivara broke the silence. “I wonder what became of that Kivren fellow who helped us get into Slither – and if he achieved what he intended.” She went on. “Kivren hinted that he knew some way of removing those tattoos that were placed on us – I would give much to speak with him again.”
“Kivren, you say? Perhaps I could help you.” The speaker was a human male, shaven-headed but for a ponytail. He wore good quality armour, though it had seen better days. Maropona guessed it had been part of a uniform, though no insignia were visible. “I am Maarkus, of House Malhaven. We are in need of capable people like yourselves to carry out an important mission. In return, we could provide information on where to find this Kivren.”
Maropona leaned forward. “What would you have us do?” Maarkus dragged a nearby chair to the table and sat down with them. “A young girl – precious to House Malhaven – is missing. Her name is Ardwen Toldara. She disappeared nearly a day ago in the Warrens. The House has authorised me to lead the search for her, but I need reliable assistance. Word has reached me of your exploits, so here I am.” “I see,” said Althaea, “and how much will this pay?” “Thirty gold each,” replied Maarkus. “Thirty? I’m sure House Malhaven is paying you a lot more.” Maarkus sighed. “Thirty is all I am authorised to offer. Malhaven is not a wealthy house.” The bard looked at him, trying to read his face. “Thirty, then, with a bonus if we find her alive?” “All right then, five gold on top of the thirty, but only if she is found alive. That’s my final offer.” Althaea looked at the others. “Not a great deal, but we won’t have to leave Tyr and it’s better than sitting around here all day.” They nodded. “It’s a deal, then.”
“What information do you have?” asked Maropona. “Not much,” replied their employer. “All we know is that Ardwen was being escorted through the Warrens yesterday by an armed guard. The next thing we know, she has disappeared and the guard has been fatally wounded. The last person to speak to him was a lad named Deckard – runs a trinket stall near where it happened. We should talk to him first.”
Several blocks north the solid mud-brick of the Caravan District began to give way to more dilapidated structures; ruinous old buildings, wood and bone shacks and simple tents. As they pushed their way through the afternoon crowds, Naivara, ever watchful, leaned close to Maropona and said, “Did you know we’re being followed?” “Wrong,” answered the mul, “I know I’m being followed. Didn’t you know, the great Maropona is in town?” he added sarcastically. About twenty assorted citizens were trailing the party, gossiping excitedly, and by and by one would shout, “Maropona? Will you compete in the Games?” to which the ex-gladiator would simply snort with irritation. Finally, one man screwed up enough courage to stand in front of him and say, “Why are you not competing? Rurik the Restless and the Magnificent Tsor from Draj will be there.” Mischievously, Naivara called, “Yes, find Tsor! Bring him here!” Maropona had had enough. He shot a glare at Naivara, then picked up his interlocutor by the lapels and shoved him into the crowd behind. Then, addressing the throng, he described in exquisite anatomical detail what he would do to anyone continuing to bother him that day. The crowd of loyal fans took the hint and disappeared.
Just then a high, cheerful voice rang out. “HEY, EVERYBODY, REMEMBER ME?” They all turned and saw a human girl of about seventeen. “Gwen… is that you?” asked Naivara. “The one and only,” trilled the newcomer. “Hey, baldy, how are you?” she went on, skipping over to Maropona and pretending to slap at his head, then dodging nimbly as he went to cuff her. “What an adventure I’ve had! I’d still be locked up in that walking cemetery if Kivren hadn’t helped me escape. He didn’t stick around though, just left me in the desert, but you know me, I can look after myself. So I wander around for a bit and hook up with this caravan heading for Tyr, then go for a drink when I get here and here you all are! By the way, I’m a bit short – can anyone lend me the price of a beer?” Maarkus looked at Gwen, then back at the four with him. “Do you know this… person?” “Of course he does,” said the young rogue, “we’ve known each other for.. uh..” “Weeks at the most,” finished Maropona. Gwen turned her attention to Maarkus. “Were you offering them a job? You could probably use an experienced scout.” Maarkus frowned. “I have already agreed a contract with these four. I don’t really need another.”
Nevertheless, Maarkus’ resolve crumbled before the teenager’s pleading, and she skipped along happily as they made their way to the rougher part of Tyr. She had wheedled five gold out of him, with the promise of a further twenty-five if she worked with the others and stayed close to him. They found Deckard a few streets later, a lean, dark-skinned lad aged about twelve, wary but confident. He stood behind a simple table set out with a few knives and cheap trinkets. Seeing the group, he called out breezily, “Ho there, gentlefolk! Come and see my special end-of-day bargains! Finest daggers! Choicest jewellery! All at reasonable prices.” Then, to Naivara, “You, miss, take a look at this bracelet of tembo scales – only twenty silvers. Just the thing to set off your –“ He paused in mid-patter, wrinkling his nose and looking closer at the psion. Shortly after Gwen had joined them, Naivara had been unfortunate enough to be walking beneath an open window just as the inhabitant was emptying a chamber pot. “Didn’t you know,” quipped Maarkus, “all the fine ladies are wearing it in their hair this season.” Naivara pulled a face and said nothing.
In return for a handful of silver Deckard related what he had seen; the girl and her escort entering notorious Slaughterstone Alley, and shortly after the guard staggering out and expiring. “What killed him?” asked Althaea, “was he stabbed?”. “Oh no, miss,” Deckard replied, “I know my daggers. This feller was clawed to death. And that’s all I know.” He watched the group head off towards Slaughterstone Alley, wondering how many would return.
The Alley was like many streets in the Warrens; winding, unwelcoming and with an atmosphere of menace. It also carried a distinctive, fishy odour. Naturally this was lost on the party since fish were unknown on Athas. More pressing matters soon presented themselves in the form of half a dozen men barring the way, wearing long red cloaks over leather armour, armed with swords and crossbows. “You seem to have lost your way”, called one, “This is Scarlet Dogs turf.” “Maropona never loses his way,” growled the warden. “You’ve probably got a nice set of balls under that armour. I bet you’d like to keep them,” added Althaea meaningfully, fingering a dagger. The Dogs were unimpressed, and drew their weapons. The fight that followed was short and by the time it ended several thugs lay dead, one had fled, and another had been taken prisoner. Apparently the Scarlet Dogs possessed the ability to transform into wolves, not that it had done this group any good. In the distance, someone shouted “Defiler!” and, dragging the captive with them, the party escaped further into the Alley. In fact no defiling magic had been used, but they preferred not to have to explain this to any wandering mobs.
A little further on they came across a cart with a broken wheel. A man was attempting to calm the two mekillots that were harnessed to the vehicle. Seeing the adventurers, he ran over and begged for help, introducing himself as Fredrik, a merchant taking wine to the Palace of Fortunity – a local gambling hall. Sha-karn stepped quickly over to the cart, taking the mekillots’ bridles and calming the great beasts. Though a little suspicious about what a merchant might be doing with such a valuable cargo in such crime-ridden area, Maropona nevertheless applied his strength to refitting the wheel. Althaea, meanwhile, quietly murdered the surviving Scarlet Dog with a dagger through the eyeball, as he had no information that was useful. The merchant departed with his load, thanking them and promising them a skinful of wine if they found their way to the Palace of Fortunity.
Maarkus looked at the sky. Dusk was approaching, and he knew Slaughterstone Alley had a bad reputation after dark, even for the Warrens. They pressed on, and shortly passed a scrawny old beggar. The latter did not speak, even when coins were dropped into his bowl, so they left him and further on came across two scruffy men dozing against the side of a building. Maarkus asked them if they had seen the missing girl, or her guard. One admitted that ‘some people’ had come down the Alley, including a girl, but one had come back bleeding. Further questioning seemed to irritate the men, and as they stood up it became clear they were both armed; one with a dagger, and the other, remarkably, with a silver sword. “All right then, you want to go past us, you pay fifty gold.” “What if we haven’t got fifty gold?” asked Gwen. “Then we’ll take whatever you’ve got, sweetheart.” Gwen did a quick mental risk assessment and then turned out her pockets, presenting a small pile of coins to the men. “Twenty silver. All I’ve got, gents. Is that all right?” Silver-Sword took the money and waved her on. “See, now at least one of you is sensible. Who’s next?” “There is no way,” Maropona said slowly, “that either of you piss-stains are getting fifty gold from us.” “Then you’ll pay in blood!” Silver-Sword snapped back angrily. “Let’s get them, Harun!” He and his colleague drew their blades. As they did, there was a low whistle from up the street. The beggar, thought Naivara, glancing behind, should have guessed there’d be more than these two.
Harun went for Maropona with his dagger but the ex-gladiator’s sword sliced him open in two quick blows. Silver-Sword, seeing his mate cut down, turned tail and ran off, pursued by Althaea. As she ran, she focused her mind on the rubbish that lay strewn around and pulled lumps of it into her quarry’s path, hoping to trip him. Silver-Sword sprang past all these obstacles and vanished around a corner. The bard slowed, taking the corner wide to avoid being ambushed, but the bandit had gone. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw a figure disappearing down a sewer entrance, then was overcome by a sick feeling of dread. “You feel it too, don’t you?” said Maropona, catching up to her. He shivered a little. “There’s something wrong about this place, worse than thieves and murder.” Althaea nodded, then her eyes widened and she pointed. “Look at the ground!”
A mist had appeared, covering the street. As they watched, it coalesced into the form of a human female with dead black eyes and an open mouth. The apparation pointed to the end of the alley and the sewer entrance, whispered “Help me…” then dissolved with a dreadful howl. Maropona breathed hard, mastering the nausea that had overwhelmed him moments before. Looking round, the shocked faces of Naivara, Gwen, Sha-karn and Maarkus told him they too had seen the spectre. Maarkus waved them forward, ordering Gwen to scout the way in. The girl descended a rickety bone ladder into a tunnel lit by grey-green phosphorescent light from patches of luminous moss. “Clear,” she called back up, and the others followed. There was a walkway along each side of the sewer and part-way along Gwen could see a pile of rubbish. Walking closer, she noticed a bony hand and arm sticking out. Naivara waved her back and lifted away enough muck to reveal that underneath lay a skeleton, clad in bone mail and bearing some forgotten insignia. As she lifted the old bones, a scroll tube fell clear. Naivara drew the tube back through the air and broke the seal on one end.
She had barely unrolled the parchment inside when a point of light appeared over the body and grew into the form of a woman in armour. This time, there was no feeling of evil or foreboding, just a voice, clear and bright. Thank you. I beg you to continue my quest so my death was not in vain. With that, the apparition blazed sun-bright and disappeared. The party looked at each other in silent wonder. Eventually the spell broke and Naivara drew out a parchment from the tube in her hands. It was a crude map showing the part of the sewer system in which they were currently standing. “Look at this,” said Althaea, pointing to a part marked “PF”. “Surely that’s Palace…” “… of Fortunity,” finished Maarkus. “How about that?”
At length the tunnel branched off into a large excavated cavern. As they entered, eight dirty humanoids in ragged clothing hurled themselves at the adventurers, slashing and stabbing with wavy-bladed daggers. Their assault initially forced the party back, but it was obvious none of them were trained or particularly strong beyond the madness that seemed to drive them. Less than a minute later they all lay sprawled dead. “These people – these must be the ones who have been disappearing in this area,” said Maarkus. “You never told us that,” said Maropona. “I thought it was just gossip and not worth mentioning,” their employer answered. “Look around. They seem to have been digging out this cave – making it bigger. “Mining?” asked Sha-karn. “Doesn’t look like it. That’s odd. Anyway, the girl isn’t here, fortunately, so let’s explore the other way.” “I’ll catch you up,” called Gwen, as they left. She was crouched by one of the dead men, pulling at their clothing. “Hurry up then,” Maarkus replied as he left. “You won’t find anything valuable on them.”
When she was quite alone in the cavern, the girl drew her dagger and quickly sliced off the genitals of every male corpse she could find, her face a tight little smile of satisfaction. She always enjoyed this part and she always felt a little calmer inside afterwards. For a while, anyway. She finished her task, rubbed sand on her hands to get rid of the blood and sprinted back after the others.
A few minutes later she was bent over a grate in the sewer that blocked their way, patiently working the locks with picks and tension bar. These are new , she thought, Another odd thing to add to the list . Fortunately the new locks were also easier to pry open than whatever rust-jammed device they had replaced, and at length the rogue swung the grate open in triumph.
There was a tunnel beyond that angled about forty-five degrees right, with a closed door. It was unlocked. Gwen opened it a crack, then pushed it wide, whistling quietly. The room was trapezoidal, with a crude altar in the middle, carved with sluglike writhing forms. Sweet smoke hung in the air. Most strikingly, the place was littered with valuables – odd items of jewellery, loose gems and objects of precious metal. Gwen stepped inside. The others crowded in behind her, also entranced by the sight. A voice boomed out. “YOU STAND BEFORE THE HIGH ALTAR OF THE SECLUDED ONE. STATE YOUR DESIRE AND LEAVE A SACRIFICE.” Startled, everyone grabbed their weapons and looked around, but the chamber was empty. “Magic,” said Maarkus. “A trick used by wizards to deliver a message. Gwen was over by the back wall, searching. “Got a door here,” she called. She pushed it open and peered into another chamber with a corridor leading off. Maropona made to go through the doorway, but paused as Gwen spoke. “Wait a minute – I’m pretty sure there’s a hidden door on this wall.” The others looked at the stone, seeing nothing but carvings. Gwen ran her fingers over the shapes, caressing them like a lover, then paused, pressing on a raised section. Part of the wall swung back on hidden hinges. This opening gave on to an empty square room about twenty-five feet on a side, with one exit joining it to the other chamber. “Odd, that,” said the rogue. “Why have a hidden door to somewhere you can easily enter from the same room? People are strange.” She moved boldly into the room behind the visible door and followed the corridor to a locked gate. Maropona, Althaea and Naivara followed.
As they shut the door behind them there was a click. Naivara pulled at the handle, but the door did not move. “Hey! The door locked behind us – can you open it?” she called. The handle rattled ineffectually, and she heard Sha-karn’s voice. “It is locked! Be careful!” Naivara now heard a grinding sound, as of stone moving against stone, then Althaea shouting, “Maro! Get out of that room now!” The psion turned to see Maropona and Althaea rush through the door out of the square room and ran over to them. “Spikes – coming out of the wall, then the wall moved towards us,” said the bard. The grinding continued, then grew louder as the spiked wall approached the other side of the wall they were on. As they watched, long spikes emerged all along the length of the wall facing them. “How…” Maro began, then they all backed away quickly.
In the altar room, Sha-karn noticed the secret door had shut. “Hark – something is wrong.” He listened at the visible door, then turned to Maarkus. The man nodded before he could speak. “You heard it too. They are in some sort of trouble – I heard the word ‘spikes’, and that rumbling.” “I’ll try and open that secret door,” the genasi replied.
The room they were in narrowed towards the corridor leading to the gate, but as each spike-tipped block came to rest against the opposite wall, its neighbour continued on its path. Finally there was only one block sliding inexorably down the corridor towards them. Maro pulled his bedroll out from his pack and wedged the thick material between the approaching block and the last part of the tapering section. The spikes slowed a little, pushing past the bedroll. Gwen knelt by the gate, fighting down panic as her picks jiggled in the lock. Outside, Sha-karn and Maarkus searched urgently for the little protrusion that opened the secret door. The spikes were fifteen feet away and closing.
A moment or two later, the lock sprang open and Gwen pushed at the gate with a cry. Almost simultaneously, Sha-karn’s fingers pushed the little stone knob that Gwen had found earlier and the secret door opened. The spikes began to grind backwards.