Chapter 8 – Meanwhile in the City of Tarlet
Sixth of Learning 1142
The Dancing Moth, a tavern in the city of Tarlet, never closed and never quite emptied. There was always someone present. Merchants arriving late at night, their caravans delayed by bandits, creatures or weather. Adventurers who came to drink after their successful forays into the wild places, or after their failures. Hard working locals who came to relax or escape after a day of labors. And of course, the men who preyed on such folk. Merck Vanderoth was such a man.
Merck was a Level 4 Swindler, though a successful one. He compensated for his lack of levels with bravado and daring that would put even the bravest adventurers to shame. Those who knew him, or knew of him, were aware of his
reputation, but none knew what was behind it. It had less to do with daring and more to do with sizzle.
Sizzle was a narcotic made from a rare plant that opened the mind to the most amazing dreams. It was also extremely addictive, which didn’t bode well for a low level Swindler, who needed more and more money constantly. His earlier conquests fed his confidence. His addiction fed his ego, and his need for gold kept him hungry for more. As such it was inevitable he would be caught. But being caught wasn’t the end of Merck’s tale, it was merely the beginning, rocky though it was. This is the story of a low level swindler, who made a deal with exactly the wrong people on exactly the right night.
The Misfits of Karmenon was a team of adventurers who traveled about doing adventurer things—guarding caravans, rescuing hostages, killing monsters and drinking taverns dry between. So it was, one particularly dark night, they found themselves in The Dancing Moth, enjoying a round of drinks courtesy of a successful foray into a trodara lair. The monsters had been killing and gathering loot for a long time, and most of that loot, the most valuable (and all the Misfits could carry) had returned to the city with them. The Misfits were enjoying an evening of boasting and celebration, when they happened to run into Merck Vanderoth.
The Misfits of Karmenon was a group of five adventurers, none of whom had been born in Karmenon. The original group of that name had been, and over the years, members had either died or had moved to other groups, until none of the original members were left. But adventurer teams seldom changed names, whether they changed members or not, because names get known, and if your team is known it’s easier to get work. None of the current members knew that Ishranith Lenis, the original team leader, had wanted to name the team Pride of Karmenon, but it had already been taken. So had several other names he had tried and so he eventually settled on Misfits in a fit of frustration. It never suited the originals as well as it did the current roster – two humans, a serpent lord, a salad, and a phase shifter, a truly unusual collective. Even for adventurers they were an odd grouping. In spite of this, they ended up being fairly well known, at least locally, not only because they were frequently successful, but because they often spent much of their earnings buying drinks for the locals.
Ressssen was a serpent lord and leader of the Misfits. Her mage cloak concealed most of her scaled body, but her long, graceful neck supported a head that would have looked perfectly at home on a cobra. Males of the species had somewhat shorter necks comparatively. Of course, Ressssen was a serpent lady, but the race was still called serpent lords due to the inaccurate belief that they could control any snake they came across. This rumor was derived from the habits of serpent lord mages acquiring snakes as familiars.
Like many of her kind, Ressssen was a mage, and a Level 8 one at that, the highest level on the team. She knew quite a few useful spells, though it’s fair to say that they were far more useful when she was sober which, unfortunately for her, had ceased to be the case many hours ago.
She scanned the bar for the rest of her team. Borin and Dreek weren’t anywhere to be seen, which was unsurprising, as neither of them drank alcohol in any form. Borin was a salad and it would hurt him, and Dreek simply wasn’t affected by drink, though he could consume it and sometimes did to be polite. She didn’t see Trace at first but then she did, off with the best looking man in the establishment, looking impressed as he told her some story. Ressssen sighed, though she was used to it. Trace was a successful adventurer, but she had little confidence in her dealings with the opposite sex. Every time she got some drink into her, she’d find some attractive local to fawn over. It wouldn’t be long before the two of them disappeared into her room.
Garne sat at the table with Ressssen, bleary eyed from too much drink, dark brown hair disheveled, beard and mustache needing to be cut. He looked morose, which is how he often got when he drank too much. There was tragedy in his past that Ressssen knew nothing about, but she never pried. People were entitled to their secrets. The gods knew she had hers.
“You don’t look like a man who’s come back to town in victory,” she said, trying to draw him into a conversation.
“Imagine that. What do I look like?” he asked, deep gravelly voice slurred.
She considered him. “Like someone whose wife ran off with all his gold and his best friend, who happened to be another woman.”
Garne laughed, which was good, because that was what she had wanted from him. “That sounds about right. My type of woman right there. She has her priorities straight.”
She didn’t know how to answer that and looked around again to hide the fact. Trace was leaning over to the man now, whispering something in his ear. Ressssen shifted her view about the room, looking for the other two non-humans of her group, knowing she was unlikely to find them.
And she was right. No sign of either Dreek or Borin. There was, however, a human man approaching. There was nothing about him that would draw attention, and it was only by chance that she noticed him. He was coming straight toward their table. She prepared to say something discouraging, well aware many human males were attracted to serpent lord females, but he forestalled her by walking up to them, not saying anything or even looking at her, taking out several potion vials and lining them up on the table in front of him. She stared at the vials and looked at the man with curiosity.
“What have you there?” she asked in her strangely accented Karmish.
“Healing potions. Good ones, apparently. I won them in a game of tesque, but don’t really know what to do with them. I figure you could probably use them more than I, being an adventurer and all. I never leave the city.
Garne joined the conversation. “How much?”
“I didn’t catch your name. I am Merck Vanderoth.”
“You can call me Garne. How much?”
“I have no idea what they’re worth to be honest. Again, I don’t have any real need for them, and since you fine folks have been keeping me lubricated tonight, I thought I’d ask you what was fair. I don’t want to overcharge anyone.”
Garne finally found a smile for that, and said, “A gold coin for all of them is probably what they’re worth.”
“That sounds fair to me,” replied Merck, “who started to slide them across the table to the warrior.
A scaled, clawed hand landed on his wrist, stopping him. “We’ve talked about this Garne. We don’t take advantage of locals. That’s at least two gold worth of potions, probably three.”
“I don’t mind…”, began Merck, but Ressssen wouldn’t hear of it. She reached into her pouch, dropped three gold coins on the table, and ordered another round of drinks for everyone. She was after all, very drunk, and they had done very well.
Merck stayed for the drink and then faded into the crowd without anyone quite knowing where he’d gone, or remembering whether or not he’d said good night. When he left the inn, he was smiling, because three gold was more than he dreamed he’d get for those fake potions. He knew that it was unlikely they’d need one in the city and so had time to plan his getaway. He’d travel north, maybe to the capital where he could easily lose himself. But in the meantime, he had to see a centaur about some sizzle.
The Misfits of Karmenon usually got along well with the patrons of whatever tavern they happened to be in. The owners of the establishments loved them, because they spent their funds freely. The patrons loved to hear the tales of their adventures and drink the booze they thoughtfully supplied to everyone, and the barmaids fantasized about what it might be like to spend a night with a brave and strong adventurer, even one as surly as Garne. No one, however, fantasized about Borin, because he was a plant, and didn’t have any sex organs that were compatible.
Occasionally however, the Misfits ran into another adventurer, or sometimes a team, that thought they needed to be taken down a peg or six. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, the repairs they had to help pay for cut deeply into their profits. Such was the life of an adventurer. And as fate would have it, on the night they were deceived by a Level 4 Swindler, they were present in the tavern when another team of adventurers arrived, looking to share tales of their own success. They had only recently returned to town and still stank of the road, and were still covered with gore, and they were tired, irritable, and needed a drink and a bed and particularly a bath. Unfortunately, The Dancing Moth didn’t have any rooms left as the Misfits of Karmenon had taken the last of them.
A warrior approached Garne, precisely the wrong member of the Misfits to engage with, and spoke in a tired, but friendly manner.
“Greetings, my friend. We are the Rat Wardens, a group of adventurers recently returned from the wilds, and we were hoping to bed here for the night, but it seems the last rooms were taken by your team. I was hoping to see if I could get one of you to relinquish your room and perhaps share with another member of your team, so we can get a bath and some rest.”
Morosely, Garne looked up at the man. “Rat Wardens? What kind of name is that for an adventuring team?”
“I’m not sure how that makes a difference, my good man. We’re tired, it’s late and we need a place to…”
Garne cut him off. “Try the basement. That’s where you usually find rats, no?”
“Is it really so much to ask for you to give up a single room?”
The man stopped, looked around the tavern, shrugged apologetically at the barkeep and punched Garne in the face as hard as he could. Garne wasn’t ready for it, and in moments, the entire establishment was in pandemonium. Chairs were broken over backs, bottles over heads, and Garne, who was giving at least as good as he got, was happy they’d purchased those extra healing potions, considering what his face felt like already.
It was a brawl like every brawl. No one was trying to kill anyone else, so no one died, but at the end no one escaped without at least minor injury. By the time it was done, everyone was bruised and battered, but that was nothing next to what the furniture had suffered. Gold changed hands to pay for the damage, Ressssen agreed to share a room with Garne (much to his annoyance), and the Rat Wardens grumpily went upstairs to sleep off, not just the events of that night, but of the entire two weeks they’d been away from town.
It was, of course, at this point, that Garne made a startling discovery.
“Hey, Ressssen. I don’t think these are real healing potions at all.”
Ressssen’s forked tongue darted angrily from her mouth. “Is that so? Get the otherssss. We have a debt to ssssettle.”
Garne stood unsteadily, though at this point it was likely from several blows to the head rather than the booze. He walked to the bar, where Trace sat alone. He didn’t think of her as Trace though. Everyone in the Misfits called her Striker.
She regarded him with the look one gives a five year old for tracking mud into the house.
“Where’s your friend?” he asked cheerfully, much happier after being able to vent some of his anger at someone who was swinging back.
“He didn’t like the looks of that brawl, and so he left. My guess is he won’t be back. My guess is this means I’ll be spending tonight alone. Unless you…”
“My guess is you’ll be spending tonight helping us track down the man who swindled us out of three gold.”
Garne grinned. “Come on, Striker. That has to be better than spending a night with that loser.”
“How do you know he was a loser? You didn’t even talk to him.”
“Well, was he?”
She blew out her breath. “Fine, yes. He was eye candy. He was what I needed tonight. You know what I don’t need tonight?”
She punched him in the shoulder, and he winced. He always forgot how much stronger she was than she looked.
“No! What I don’t need tonight is missing sleep to track down some guy you shouldn’t have been dealing with in the first place.”
“Then complain to Ressssen. She was the one who paid him.”
“Oh. Well that’s okay then.”
“Oh sure,” Garne grumbled, “when Ressssen does it it’s fine. When I do it, it’s an inconvenience.”
“I’m glad you understand. I usually have to explain things to you more than once.”
Garne shook his head, but laughed. “I’m going to get the others. Get ready to go.”
Garne turned away and shook his head. She’d complain, but she’d be there. Striker was always there when they needed her. It was one of the reasons she was so valued, even though she was lower level than the rest of them.
He walked up the stairs, stopping in front of Dreek and Borin’s room, which they shared. It was a convenient arrangement since neither of them actually slept. He knocked. Dreek stuck his head through the door without opening it.
As a phase shifter Dreek could vary his physical appearance, which he did often. The only thing he couldn’t control as a shadow being was his color. Dreek was as black as the darkest night, no matter what form he took. At the moment he was wearing a beret and sported a long, thin mustache that was only barely visible, being the same color as the rest of him.
“Yes? Oh hi. Borin was just telling me a story I don’t understand, about people I don’t care about. I hope this is more interesting.”
“We need you both. We have a thief to track down.”
“Revenge. He stole from us.”
“So, not a smart thief. I’ll get Borin.”
The head disappeared back behind the door, and Garne, who’d seen it before, scowled.
“I need a new team,” he muttered as he returned to the tavern proper.
It wasn’t long before the entire team had gathered, carrying their gear. They were all different, but at that moment, they were a single entity focused on the task at hand. Whoever this thief was, he would pay, for no one steals from the Misfits of Karmenon.
And so it was, the Misfits paid up their tab, finished their drinks and set out into the night.
Unfortunately for Merck, one of the team members, Dreek, was a phase shifter, and most phase shifters were excellent trackers, particularly if they had access to something you’d handled. Dreek took one of the fake potions, closed his hand around it, then handed it back to Ressssen. Then he left the establishment and disappeared into the night. Though Merck didn’t know it, fate was about to pay him a visit he would never, ever forget.
Ressssen followed Dreek through the streets of Tarlet. Dreek, at the moment, looked like the silhouette of a powerful mage, with voluminous robes and even a staff. Ressssen understood the weapon to be part of his body rather than an item he was holding. The degree of control Dreek had over his shape never ceased to amaze her. Anyone who saw him would likely give him a wide berth, which was no doubt why the phase shifter had taken the form.
Tarlet wasn’t a large city, but was still too big to be called a town. It wasn’t the kind of place where you could hide for long if someone with a skill was tracking you. What kind of idiot rips off a team of adventurers so obviously in a place like this? Did he have a death wish?
She tried to remember the thief’s name, but it was beyond her. She hadn’t yet sobered, but she wasn’t quite as drunk. She followed the phase shifter through the dark streets, away from the center of town. Though humanoid, Dreek was more like a shadow than a flesh and blood being, but he was physical at least some of the time. Dreek was the Misfits tracker and scout. He had a lot of talents, not the least of which was finding traps and hidden rooms. Finding a single person in a place like this would be child’s play for him.
Behind her, the three other members of the Misfits followed. The last member of the group, a human, brought up the rear. Her name was Trace, but everyone called her Striker, because no matter what she aimed for, she always hit it. She was as good with a bow as anyone Ressssen had ever seen. Better even than people of a higher level. She was tall for a human, almost as tall as Ressssen herself, who with her long neck stood hands above most humans. Striker had short blonde hair, blue-green eyes and a thin frame without much shape to it. Still, it was clear to Ressssen that most men found her attractive. She’d been called a tom boy by some, though Ressssen didn’t understand what that meant. She didn’t think it particularly pleased the girl, so Ressssen left it alone.
She noticed Dreek waiting ahead of them in front of a two-story building. They hurried to him and crowded around. His voice was deep, melodic and seemed to come from everywhere when he spoke. She knew this was a trick of voice projection all phase shifters possessed, but it never ceased to unnerve her.
“He’s inside. Top floor, in the back. How do you want to handle this?”
“Let’s have some fun,” said Ressssen. Perhaps if she were sober she’d have taken it more seriously, but she didn’t think the thief was going to pose them much of a threat. “Dreek, go scare him out. We’ll wait down here.”
Dreek didn’t smile or if he did, there wasn’t enough contrast on his shadowed face to show it. “On it.”
Dreek phase shifted, walked through the front door, climbed the stairs and passed through a wall into the room beyond. There wasn’t much there. A bed, a chest of drawers upon which sat a clay basin filled with water, a lit candle, and a single window, shutters open to the night. And on the bed, propped up on pillows, sat a man he’d never seen before. He used the Read Tether skill to check the man’s class and level.
A Level 4 Swindler. If only he’d been downstairs with the rest of them, he could have warned them. Realizing this did nothing to improve Dreek’s mood.
The man looked up at him, and Dreek waited for him to react, but the man just sat there staring, as if seeing a shadow being appear in your room was the most normal thing in the world.
In his rented room, Merck Vanderoth lay on his bed, propped up on so many pillows he might as well have been sitting. If you were to describe him, you’d have to say he was average in every way. He exactly failed to draw the eye. He wasn’t a handsome man that you’d look at twice, but he wasn’t the kind of man you’d look at because he failed to please either. His hair was short and brown, almost exactly the same color as his eyes. He was someone’s carriage man or perhaps a cook. He wasn’t weak looking, but he didn’t look muscular either. He wasn’t exactly thin, but he wasn’t particularly overweight. All in all, he had a completely forgettable face and manner. He was almost as much not present as present, which served him well in his chosen profession.
The sizzle had started to kick in, evidenced by the shimmer around the single candle in his room. The walls pulsed with barely detectable energy, and he heard the beginnings of whispers that came from all around him. Then a shadowy shape flowed through the wall in front of him. A ghostly humanoid, dark as a moonless night, featureless, and perhaps frightening. Merck wondered what it meant.
The apparition stood in front of him waiting, for what, Merck couldn’t tell. Was he supposed to talk to it? Perhaps that was it.
“Hello,” he said. “Be welcome here.”
The creature shook its head. “Why do you not flee, mortal?”
“Why should I? Do you mean me harm?”
The creature studied him before answering. “You sold us bad healing potions. Of course we mean you harm.”
Merck sat up straighter. An interesting turn of events. Was he developing a conscience? Surely not. It was too late for such things. So why did this hallucination seem to blame him for something he had never had an issue with. He didn’t know and decided to ask it.
“Are you here to chastise me then? Am I to reform my criminal ways?”
The shadow looked, if it could be said to display any sort of emotion, flabbergasted. “Enough.”
The shadow reached out a hand, slowly, menacingly, but Merck just sat and watched, wondering what would happen when it reached him. And then something happened that had never happened before. The illusion grabbed his wrist.
For a long moment, mind clouded by sizzle, Merck stared at the shadowy hand grasping him. This was some good stuff. Unless…he looked up again at the apparition and did something completely unexpected. He started to laugh.
The creature did nothing until the laughter faded, apparently happy to wait. When Merck finally caught his breath, he spoke.
“You’re not a hallucination, are you?”
“Of course I’m not.”
“That’s really bad,” said Merck and he broke into hysterical laughter again.
“Where is our gold?”
Merck nodded, though he was still chuckling. “It’s right here,” he said, pulling a pouch from his belt. He handed it to the shadow man, who took it hesitantly, perhaps expecting a trap of some sort. While the man studied the pouch, Merck kicked out, pushing him back, and leapt out the open window. Under the effects of sizzle, all things seemed possible. Merck fell from the second story of the building, somehow landed on his feet and took off, using a skill as soon as he found his focus.
“Fast Forward,” he whispered, and suddenly he was running faster than any human could possibly run unaided. Even a horse would have had trouble keeping up with him. He wasn’t far from the edge of the small town and he left it now, charging blindly into the wilderness in an attempt to discourage anyone from pursuing him.
Dreek held the pouch of what felt like and sounded like coins in his hand, surprised at how easy it was to get their money back. Perhaps they wouldn’t have to hurt the fellow too badly, not that it was his choice. Ressssen would decide, and he’d go along, not only because she had successfully led them this far, but because she had a better understanding of most races and how they worked than he did. Put him in an underground warren filled with dangerous creatures and insane traps, and he was right at home. Put him in a city filled with other races, and he was as out of place as a virgin in a brothel. At least he thought that was the case. He’d never been to a brothel.
Such were his thoughts, when the man lashed out with a foot and kicked him off balance. He staggered backwards and stumbled, which didn’t happen often. As he was finding his feet, he saw the man he’d been sent to terrify leap from the window. He ran to it, and the thief was already making his way down the street. How? He was only Level 4, after all. He should have been no match for a Level 6 Scout.
Dreek had a decision to make. He could pursue the man, or he could return to the others and let them know what had happened. The decision was made for him as he watched, when the man, suddenly and inexplicably, sped away at a speed Dreek couldn’t hope to match. He opened the pouch in his hands and found it only had a few small stones in it, no coins at all. But it felt and sounded like coins clinking together. He used a skill to detect magic on the bag and sighed, a bad habit he’d picked up from humans. Phase Shifters he knew never sighed.
Resigned, he stepped out of the window and floated down to the ground. Then he walked around to the front of the building, where his team was waiting.