That Horrible Moment Chapter 4
Prelude to a Nightmare
As Ellis stood across the
street from The Juraviss Eggs, she examined it and her
surroundings carefully. She was no longer in the slums, that much was clear.
The street was clean and well-kept, and there was not a beggar, drunk, or
bum in sight. The restaurant, a spacious, white stone building lit by beautifully
made windows, reflected the upper class feel of the neighborhood as
She caught her reflection in a nearby window, uncharacteristically self-conscious. She was dressed in the least worn clothing she owned, and her customary longbow was stowed unstrung with the rest of her belongings in the inn. She felt almost naked without it, but she forced the nervousness down. She could hardly walk into an upscale restaurant with the weapon slung over her shoulders! Drawing in a deep breath, she crossed the cobble stone street and strode toward the door.
Two heavy-set men immediately blocked her way. A smaller, well-dressed man stood of to the side, a sour expression on his face. He looked her over, sniffing disdainfully at her somewhat threadbare leggings and jerkin. Do you have an appointment, he paused for a moment and spoke the last word contemptuously, Lady?
Ellis flipped her head back, trying to appear confident. I am here to see Sir Tiran. Is he here?
The man sneered. Master Tiran has better things to do than speak to every peasant, he spat the word in the tone most people used for whore, that wanders in. Now, would you please remove yourself from the entrance to this establishment?
Ellis, suddenly finding herself wishing devoutly that she had brought her bow, etiquette be damned, started to step towards the man, a protest forming on her lips. One of the bouncers instantly blocked her path, while the other grabbed her from behind. Just as Elliss hand began to inch towards the concealed dagger she carried with her, a cultured, faintly amused voice interrupted them.
I believe the lady said she has business with me, Odel.
All four of them turned to regard the speaker. He was a tall man, in his early thirties, with gray eyes and jet black hair cut in the latest fashion. As he regarded the scene, he absently stroked the thick mustache and tightly clipped goatee that adorned his face.
Ellis shook off the toughs hands and smiled at the man, Tiran, she said warmly, hoping this was indeed the man she had come to meet, its good to see you, although the hired help could stand some improvement.
Gallantly, Tiran took Elliss outstretched hand and raised it to his lips. Terribly sorry, my dear, although in truth he had not the slightest idea who the woman was. Perhaps we could discuss the matter inside?
Certainly, Ellis replied.
B-But, Odel tried to sputter out a protest. Tiran silenced the pompous doorman with an icy glare. Ill deal with you later. He turned back towards Ellis and bowed graciously. Shall we? With that, he led the young adventurer inside.
After they were seated, Tiran cocked an eyebrow quizzically. While I am always happy to make the acquaintance of a beautiful young lady, I am also somewhat curious. Would you kindly grace me with the knowledge of your name and the matter for which you came?
Ellis nodded. My name is Ellis, and I represent my company of mercenaries. A man by the name of Gafgarion suggested that I speak with you regarding a job, and that I not try to arrange an appointment at you office.
Tiran smiled wryly. My secretary would have kept you waiting for a month, he agreed. I must admit, I am surprised that Gaff was able to find someone so soon. No matter how many times I work with the man, he never ceases to amaze me. He is a resourceful one, Ill give him that. He chuckled slightly, then added, Please inform him that his commission will be delivered the usual way and will be the usual amount.
Resourceful indeed, Ellis thought dryly. When Gafgarion had mentioned Tiran to Ramza, seemingly off-handedly, all he had said was that Tiran might be worth speaking to, if you are needin money. Just let him know old Gaff sent you. Mentally raising he opinion of Gafgarion several notches, she did her best to cover her surprise with another smile.
Well, you know how he is. So tell me, what exactly is this job? Gaff didnt say. The old bastard, she added silently.
Tirans face grew more serious. In a sober tone of voice, he explained the situation. Over the last year, several merchant convoys have been ambushed, or to be more accurate, slaughtered, on the route through Sweegy from Dorter to Igros. We do not know any details about the bandits responsible, except that they are apparently well armed, well trained, and extremely skilled. There have been no survivors. He paused grimly, then continued. Furthermore, due to the nature of the attacks, we suspect that they have at least one agent in the shipping guild.
He took a sip of his drink, then looked up as his meal arrived. And another for the lady, he told the waiter. He winked mischievously at Ellis. My treat. He straightened slightly, then turned serious again. We have, of course, petitioned the Hokuten for aid, but they have been caught up in that business with the Death Corps. And, now that they have been put down, they appear to be gearing up for something else, something no one is willing to talk about. He sighed. And that is where you come in. How many people did you say your company contains?
Four, she replied, trying to sound casual.
Four?! Tiran said incredulously, sounding surprised for the first time. Thats all?!
We fight like a dozen, Ellis replied coolly, inwardly wondering whether they actually dared take on this job. It would be extremely risky, but they were desperate for funds. Besides, it was rapidly becoming clear to Ellis that this job was Gafgarions way of taking their measure. They would have to try, the old mercenary was likely their best chance at surviving now.
You would have to, Tiran replied a bit absently as he absorbed the information. Only four. Well, it was certainly less than he had hoped for, but it would have to do. Besides, and this thought encouraged him, Gafgarion had sent them. He doubted that the canny old warrior would have sent so few if he did not trust them to get the job done. He looked back to Ellis.
Can you depart tomorrow morning?
As Ellis left the restaurant,
she nearly collided with a slender, red-haired man dressed in fine clothing.
He nimbly stepped to the side, then caught her as she started to stumble,
darting forwards with cat-like agility. Are you well, noble lady?
he asked solicitously, although he could tell she was as much a peasant as
Ellis, embarrassed, started to reply, then froze as she saw his face, an inexplicable terror coursing through her body. She backed away, stuttering an apology, then all ran out the door. Lanal regarded her curiously, then shrugged, dismissing the matter. Spotting his quarry, he gave a wave. Tiran old friend, how are you doing?
Ellis fled from the restaurant
in a cold sweat, charging through the streets at a breakneck pace. She earned
more than a few angry looks and curses as she shoved her way past anyone
who stood in her way. Spotting a side road, she turned into an empty alley
between streets. Finally alone, she leaned against the wall, trembling in
fear from the strange, almost primal terror that the man had inspired in
her. Slowly, she slid down the wall and came to a sitting position. Trying
to control her panting breath, she tried to make sense of what was going
Why was she so frightened? Mentally, she replayed the encounter, trying to determine the cause of her bizarre reaction. The man had appeared perfectly unthreatening, he had been completely polite, even gentile in his manner. So why had every instinct she had screamed at her to flee?
It was a long time before Ellis was able to regain her composure enough to rise to her feet, and even longer before she was able to walk out of the alley. After regaining her bearings, she made her way back to the inn the party where the party was staying. She tried to write off the encounter as a fluke, unable to find an explanation for her response. It was only a fluke, nothing important, she told herself repeatedly.
But Lanals face haunted her every step of the way, and was in her nightmares that night.
After exchanging pleasantries,
Tiran quickly got down to business. So, Derson, to what do I owe the
Lanal sipped his wine before replying. I have been sent by my employers in the shipping guild to inquire as to the extra security arrangements.
Tiran nodded. Of course, I have a list right here. As Tiran searched for the papers detailing the merchant convoy routes and the security for the next quarters caravans, Lanal leaned back slightly. Idly, he wondered if the real Dersons body had been found yet. Probably not, it had been weighted down and the harbor fish had likely turned the corpse into a skeleton by now. Not that it would matter either way much longer.
Here you go, Tiran said, handing a sheaf of documents over. Lanal bent down and examined them intently. Tiran explained. Ive managed to hire extra guards for the caravans that will be making the trip this month. They arent as heavily guarded as I would like, most of our resources are being directed to catching the bandits behind the attacks.
I see, Lanal replied, his face the picture of concern, pray, what is being done to deal with these vile brigands?
We outfitted a number of fake convoys as traps. They are listed as carrying valuable goods, but they are actually packed with soldiers.
Listed? Lanal echoed curiously. It was a good thing he had taken the true guild agents place, he had not known about this. Listed on our forms?
Tiran looked slightly uncomfortable. Yes. Dont take this the wrong way, but we suspect there is a leak somewhere in your guild. Id appreciate it if you kept this to yourself for now, theres no telling how high up it might go.
Lanal assured him that discretion would not be a problem.
What worries me, Lanal continued, is this caravan, picking up the schedule for the convoy in question. I managed to find some guards for it, but it is still seriously undermanned, and the leader insists on leaving tomorrow.
How many have you been able to find? Lanal inquired, sensing an easy target.
I was only able to find four people, plus the usual escort.
Lanals brow creased as he pretended to come to a decision. Perhaps I can assist you with that. I have guild business to attend to in Igros, and require transport. If I travel with the under-defended caravan, I could requisition company guards to accompany me.
Tiran looked at him gratefully. You would do that? I could be very dangerous to you.
Lanal waved off the warning. Always happy to help. With that, he raised his cup. A toast, to good business!
Tiran quickly joined in. Well, he thought, that was one problem solved.
Alberto, having finally managed
to ditch his annoying companions, looked around the shop. It was a bizarre
place, dedicated to rare, magical, or just plain weird artifacts. Strange,
mismatched talismans decorated the shelves and walls. A full quarter of the
space was devoted to jars filled with arcane components. Towards the back,
where the counter behind which the old woman who ran the place sat, there
was a rack displaying dozens of rods and staves. Higher up, the walls were
adorned with the stuffed or shrunken heads of creatures even he did not
Alberto felt perfectly at home here.
He walked up to the old crone, not sparing the collected staves a second glance. She leered crookedly at him, revealing yellowed stumps of teeth, and launched on her spiel.
Welcome young sir, what do you seek? I have rods that hold shards of the very hellfire within them, bracers that can lend your arms the strength and skill of a goblin, and potions that...
Nothing out here is worth my time, Alberto interrupted bluntly. What else do you have here?
The crones leer faded into a startled, then pleased smile. Sorry about that. Most of the people who come here are either no talent hacks or merchants looking for an edge. She ambled over to the bookshelf behind her, pulled out a thick volume, and reached into the gap. Pulling an unseen lever, she triggered the passage. A patch of the wall to the side of the bookcase slid aside. The good stuff is back here. With that, she motioned for him to follow and walked through the passage.
Alberto followed, and looked around the hidden room with interest.
It was cluttered, with stands, pedestals, and bookshelves scattered haphazardly about the stone, checkerboard floor. Various tapestries and scrolls covered the blue painted walls, seeming utterly out of place in a shop located in an out of the way side street like one. But most of all, this place, unlike the public part of the shop, reverberated with magical auras to Albertos refined senses.
He returned his gaze to the old woman. Something about her seemed odd to him, a barely visible distortion that seemed to surround her like a translucent crystalline veil.
She noted his scrutiny and smiled. Nothing slips past you, does it? With that, she half closed her eyes and splayed her hands out before her, the thumbs and pointer fingers meeting to form a triangle. She murmured something, and the space around her seemed to ripple, obscuring her from sight. It cleared after a few moments, revealing a completely different sight.
She was young, seeming barely into her twenties. Her face, no longer wrinkled, was stunningly beautiful, covered with an exotic tan. She smiled dazzlingly; revealing white teeth in place of the crones yellowed stumps. Her emerald eyes shown with a fey glow, and her red hair, which reached the small of her back, was gathered in three intricately woven braids.
My name is Meroe. Sorry about the disguise, but it cuts down on suitors in this neighborhood. Now, are you looking for anything in particular?
Alberto, of course, did not find any of this to be odd.
He pulled a satchel from beneath his robes. Setting it down on the floor, he opened it, revealing four solid black eggs. He looked up. Ahriman eggs, they should be hatching within a week. I have heard you collect them.
Meroe knelt down beside him and withdrew one of the perfectly spherical ebony orbs. Not even bothering to try to hide her excitement, she ran her fingers along its uncannily smooth surface, squealing slightly as she detected a slight movement within. She looked to Alberto, a joyful smile on her face. I assume you will be wanting to trade?
What do you have?
Meroe gestured around the room distractedly. Feel free to look around, she said absently, her attention still rapt on the eggs.
Alberto, taking her up on her offer, began to wander the room. Many magical weapons were on display in glass cases. Before him a red bladed sword rested on one cushion, while on a nearby pedestal stood a bow Ellis would have killed for. Instead of wood, it seemed to be made of some sort of flexible blue crystal. Picking it up, he pulled it. The crystalline substance, which radiated a supernatural chill, bent stiffly. When he released it, it sprang back into position with amazing speed. An arrow shot from this would likely put a crossbow to shame. Beside the bow was a quiver full of arrows. Pulling one out, he saw that they were made of the same material.
Replacing the weapon, Alberto turned his attention to the bookshelves. A dark, metal bound volume there immediately drew his attention like filings to a lodestone. As he examined it, he read the title engraved on it, Tome of the Summoned. Fascinated, Alberto picked it up and began to open it. As he did, Meroe noticed what he was doing.
No! She shouted, panicked. That book is magically sealed! The curses on it could destroy you!
As he opened the book, a wave of chaotic energy flooded his mind. It struck with mind-shattering force, blasting away at his psyche like water from a fire hose. It screamed insanely at him, making reality itself seem like a disjointed puzzle.
Alberto frowned for a moment, then shook his head for a moment. Other than that, he really did not even seem to notice.
He looked back at Meroe. Is this for sale?
Stunned, she nodded slowly.