Ugarth stood with unflinching resolve, an arrow ready to fly into the eladrin’s face at a moment’s notice. She eyed the arrow warily, but remained calm and unmoved.
“My name is Silvia Feykin,” she said softly. “My master would like to speak with you. I ask that you come with me to meet him now.”
The group responded suspiciously. “How do we know we can trust you?” asked Thia and Idria.
“Are you not the ones pointing a weapon at me, while I am unarmed?” Silvia responded pointedly. Her voice remained entirely too calm for one with an arrow aimed at her face, but took on a hint of firmness.
Ugarth lowered his bow and Silvia stepped forward to return Thia’s purse. She then presented five thin strips of cloth.
“Unfortunately I am going to have to ask that you are blindfolded; the location of our rendezvous is to be kept secret. As a gesture of good faith, I will allow you to blindfold yourselves. I hope this is acceptable to you.”
The party grew nervous and even more suspicious, but agreed to wear the blindfolds. Some questioned how suspicious it would look to see a party of five blindfolded people being led through the streets, but Silvia assured them that they would keep to the shadows and alleyways of the slums where they were unlikely to be seen or questioned.
Several of the party members managed to stealthily and deftly tie their blindfolds so that they could still see a small area in front of them. However, despite Ugarth’s best efforts to navigate their path, the group soon realized they were being led in circles and could not identify their location. After a minute of walking, they were joined by a confederate of Silvia’s with a gruff voice and aggressive demeanor. He walked at the rear of the group and shoved Gdom roughly several times along the way.
After several minutes, Silvia halted the group. They heard several soft thuds and a low grinding sound. Though several tried to tilt their heads back and see what was going on from under their mis-tied blindfolds, Silvia spotted them and quickly stopped their efforts. The grinding stopped. Suddenly the newcomer shoved Gdom forward, knocking him into the rest of the group and down to the floor several paces ahead. The grinding resumed for a quick moment, then ceased.
“You may remove your blindfolds,” Silvia said, her voice straining with annoyance. Upon removing their blindfolds they noticed her glaring at a burly half-orc with unusually large and shiny grey canines. The half-orc looked pleased with himself.
They had arrived in a dark, dusty cellar lit dimly with a few ill-tended torches. Crates, kegs, and barrels furnished the room. Light flickered out from under the only door in front of them along with muted conversation and laughter. Behind them, the stone wall was perfectly intact, though they could now see the mechanism which would open the hidden panel they had entered through.
Silvia led the group through the door into a much better lit room, similarly furnished with dusty kegs and boxes (and a few dustless circles on the floor where more kegs had rested before their contents were drained). There were two doors: the party’s entrance as well as a door in the far corner leading upstairs.
A middle-aged halfling dressed in leathers and clothes fit for lesser merchants sat at the only table in the room along with two humans and a half-elf. They were playing cards, gambling with bread and cheese; despite the difference in height, it was immediately clear to the newcomers that the halfling was the most authoritative figure in the room.
“Sir,” Silvia greeted him with a brisk bow. “This is the party of adventurers I had informed you of.”
The halfling looked up from his cards with a shrewd smile. “Brilliant as ever, Silvia. Brok.” He nodded to the brusque half-orc guarding the door behind the party.
“Why have you brought us here? Who are you?” they asked.
The halfling grinned. “Mean to tell me you haven’t heard of Daggerpalm? In this city? Ha!” He chuckled darkly.
Thia and Gdom stared at the halfling in awe and scrutiny, trying to reconcile the dozens of conflicting rumors they had heard with the man before them. Every creature of the slums knew his name, but few had ever seen him in person. Many considered him a benevolent godfather with a morality outside the law, taking from the undeserving wealthy to give to the desperate and needy. On the other hand, there were those who feared and detested him as nothing but a corrupt and dangerous thug.
“I have a few choice words to say to anyone consorting with this Lord Crimonhelm,” Daggerpalm continued, answering the other question. "Busy day, this. Man loves to talk. But I haven’t seen a thing done since the coward took title but a bunch of posturing and castle acrobatics. Not a surprise from his family.
“But you all… interesting crew. Don’t look like pilfering aristocrats to me, so what I want to know is—”
The door to the upstairs creaked open and the half-orc Garun emerged carrying a goblet of dark red wine. He took one look at Idria and tripped, spilling the goblet’s contents as it fell to the floor with a clatter. Daggerpalm stared.
“Sorry— so sorry— I’ll go get— sorry—” Garun stammered, scrambling back up the stairs and slamming the door behind him. Idria smiled. Then she turned to Daggerpalm.
“How did he get out of Crimsonhelm’s dungeon?”
“He’s a thief, isn’t he?” Daggerpalm chuckled gruffly. Idria noticed there was none of the superstitious malice in his glance that all wizards had grown accustomed to. He turned to the rest of the group.
“Right. So what I was saying is, I want to know what it is exactly Crimsonhelm wants from you all.”
The group hesitated to answer Daggerpalm. He had hardly shown them the best of hospitality, and Ugarth grew angrier and more obstinate with each passing moment.
“I don’t have to answer to you,” Ugarth growled as he moved to the back door. Brok refused to budge, matching his scowl as the two half-orcs stood one insult away from battle. Ugarth turned away and walked towards the stairs.
In the blink of an eye, a dagger flashed through the air straight past Ugarth’s face. Daggerpalm did not miss. A jet of wine splashed all over Ugarth’s face from the hole in a keg where the dagger had hit it.
Daggerpalm laughed. Ugarth pulled the dagger out of the keg and licked the wine off its blade before pocketing it.
“Stand down, half-orc. All I asked was a simple question and I’m not about to let you go til I’ve had an answer.”
“There was a misunderstanding with Crimsonhelm’s guards! We had a mission from a merchant and Crimsonhelm sent us away to go help him and finish our job… that’s all!” Maruk answered in frustration.
“Hrm.” Daggerpalm contemplated for a moment, frowning. "This lord claims he’s going to change things, help the people… sends you off to run errands for some wealthy merchant don’t need it. You really want to help the people, you’ll know bread prices are higher than Crimsonhelm’s castle. But, ah, Crimsonhelm? What’s he need bread for? He’s got pheasants and cakes and his own private farmland. It’s the people down here suffering. Flagon of wine says he don’t even know it.
“You want to stop that, you’re going south, to the farms Moorhaven-ways. Bandits out the ass down there and I’ve got my hands full here as it is. You do that, you’re good by me. If not, then I’d kindly ask you to get out of my sight.”
Gdom and Thia heard the truth in Daggerpalm’s words: their own families were barely managing to scrape by in the slums and bread was more treasured in their households than coins. They turned and followed the rest of the group out through the stone panel in the back room. Ugarth glared at Brok as he passed. The panel closed behind them. It was no longer necessary to hide Daggerpalm’s location in the crumbled remains of a fallen lord’s house- the secret wall could only be opened from the inside.
“You know, Daggerpalm does have a point,” Gdom said once they were outside. Thia nodded in agreement.
“I want nothing to do with that man,” Ugarth glowered.
“Let’s just go see Dirk and see what his mission is,” Maruk said. “I know him through my uncle’s smithy and he’s not a bad merchant. We can decide what to do after we’ve heard both options.”
The rest of the group agreed, though Ugarth, Idria, and Maruk did not seem eager at the prospect of working with Daggerpalm, and they set out for the merchants’ section.
Soon the group found their way to Dirk’s shop. He sat bruised and bandaged next to a large gnoll. Dirk seemed very relieved to greet the rest of the party.
“Ah, yes, hello there. Maruk, nice to see you… Idria, Ugarth, Gdom, Thia… I apologize for my… tardiness… earlier.” Dirk attempted a smile.
“Not at all, don’t be ridiculous,” Maruk said.
“Are you alright?” asked Thia.
“Yes, yes… I will be fine….”
“Um… who is this?” Idria asked, gesturing at the large gnoll accompanying Dirk.
“Grrr,” the gnoll rumbled.
“This, ah, charming fellow is Mognyr. He is the last member of your group. Unfortunately he had to be a little bit late and couldn’t make it to our meeting earlier—”
“—but that’s fine! Fine! That’s perfectly fine, I was late myself, no harm done in that, none at all….”
“So, Dirk, what was the job you had for us?” Maruk asked.
“Yes, and what exactly do you sell?” Idria asked, observing that there was little of anything that could be called merchandise in Dirk’s storefront.
“I’m not so much of a merchant as I am an importer,” Dirk explained. "I import metallic ores from dwarven land and sell them to blacksmiths, weaponsmiths and the like. I suppose I’m something of a middleman.
“But I’ve asked you all here because something very troubling has come to my attention. I have not been receiving my shipments for a while, and when I sent a group to investigate they returned to inform me that my cargo was perfectly intact… but… the men guarding it had been… slaughtered.”
Dirk paused gravely, and when he finished he looked down at his hands and away from his audience. They exchanged questioning glances before Maruk spoke.
“Your cargo was left alone? Did the group who told you this bring it back with them?” he asked.
“No,” Dirk answered, “after witnessing the… remains… they became quite frightened. They returned here as quickly as they could.”
“How did the corpses look? Was there any sign of what killed them?” Ugarth asked.
“Were they mangled?” Mognyr added.
Dirk grimaced. “Please, I have no wish to discuss such graphic and grotesque details.”
“It could help us prepare for what’s out there. Is there any way we could speak with the group who found them?” Maruk asked.
“No, no… I’ve lost touch with them, they were too nervous to stay involved… I suppose the remains must have been… savaged… a bit,” Dirk answered, straightening his sleeves to distract from the distasteful topic.
“I find this all very surprising,” Idria began suspiciously, “considering the security of the elven highways. I have traveled to the dwarven lands myself and can assure you that the elves keep the the road very safe and well-tended.”
“Ah… yes, that would be true…” Dirk hesitated, looking slightly abashed, “if my cargo traveled over the elven highways. I take a different route… off-roads, surpassing the forest and going straight through the mountains to the dwarven lands.”
The members of the group exchanged wary glances. The path Dirk described was notorious for the dangerous monsters and bandits lurking there, waiting for hapless travelers.
“It is not quite as safe,” Dirk continued quickly, “but, I do find it can be… advantageous….”
“To avoid elven taxes,” Ugarth murmured critically.
Dirk hesitated for a moment, but chose not to respond. “I am really a bit desperate…. Knowing the risks, no one is willing to work for me, in spite of the high rewards I have to offer….”
“Yes, and how much are you paying us?” Gdom asked.
“Well… I had planned to pay you each fifty gold pieces…” The group’s eyebrows collectively raised; it was a considerable sum. Dirk sighed, continuing, “but since the five of you saved me earlier today, I did promise I would double your pay… and I’m a man of my word. You five will each be paid one hundred gold pieces, and Mognyr will receive the expected fifty—”
Mognyr’s voice rose in a fiercely intimidating and indignant rumble.
“Fifty, did I say fifty?! I mean a hundred, of course, anything less would not be fair—”
Dirk took one look at Mognyr’s bared teeth.
“One hundred twenty five, I mean! Yes. Mognyr shall receive one hundred and twenty five gold pieces,” Dirk ceded, his voice an odd mix of terror and resignation.
“Hm.” Mognyr settled back into his entirely too-small chair, looking quite smug.
Thia raised her eyebrows. Considering the hard times, she knew that there were plenty of people in Ambercrest who would be willing to go face to face with death for a reward that high. One insightful glance at Dirk told her that he knew this as well, and there was something more he was not telling them. It was equally clear that he did not want to discuss it. She, Maruk, and Idria also noted that Dirk was uneasy: his words sounded rehearsed, he was slightly twitchy and startled easily, and his mind seemed to be elsewhere.
“Have you considered just using the elven roads?” Thia asked, her voice full of concern.
Dirk avoided her gaze. “Perhaps, but at such a great financial loss… hardly… well… at any rate, I’ve lost so much cargo on the road it won’t do to simply leave it there….”
“But at the very least you should make sure the people transporting it are well protected,” Thia continued.
“Yes, I certainly will… I do now. Even though it’s certainly not the safest of roads, this level of violence is unprecedented… but you are right, I will try to be more careful in the future….”
“What do you want us to do once we find the ore?” Gdom asked.
“I… well, put simply I would like you to investigate. Discover the source of the trouble once and for all and put an end to it,” Dirk answered. He continued, slightly embarrassed, “And, um, while you’re there, if you would bring the cargo back with you… I expect there are at least two carts on the road now.”
They nodded and agreed to this plan, bidding Dirk farewell. After stepping outside, they briefly discussed whether they would rather complete Dirk’s mission or search the area to the south for the bandits Daggerpalm had mentioned.
“What? Who’s Daggerpalm?” Mognyr asked.
“It’s not important,” Ugarth said. “We’ll go northwest to the dwarven road as Dirk asked.” The group agreed that it would be better to complete Dirk’s quest first, if not instead of Daggerpalm’s.
It had been a very eventful day in Ambercrest, but the sun was setting and darkness falling. The group decided to set out in the morning. Ugarth, Idria, and Mognyr had no place to stay in the city, and Thia made the mistake of offering her house.
“I will stay in the lady’s room,” Mognyr declared.
“Oh no….” Thia whimpered. She shrunk away to hide behind Idria.
It was soon agreed that Idria would stay with Thia, while Ugarth and Mognyr would be staying with Maruk. (They tactfully declined staying in Gdom’s ramshackle slum house.)
“First I will go out tonight,” Mognyr said. “Where is a good tavern?”
The group recommended the Wheezy Warden, and Mognyr set out on his way as the remaining five decided to retire.
But the night was not yet over for any of them.
Mognyr soon arrived at the tavern. It was much livelier than it had been when the rest of the party arrived earlier in the day. Commoners and soldiers filled every corner, and Mognyr could not see through the crowd.
Drinking was not Mognyr’s sole agenda in the tavern: he had recently gambled his family crest away to a mysterious, cloaked figure. Without it, he could not take the position as chief of his tribe. He had come to the Wheezy Warden in hopes of getting information about the seedy crook. However, that did not mean drinking was not on the agenda.
He made his way to the bar and ordered an ale. After having his fill of alcohol, he turned to the soldier next to him at the bar, one of Lord Hallodawn’s guards.
“How’re you doin’?” he asked jovially.
“I’m doing alright, man, I’m doing alright!” the soldier responded enthusiastically.
“That’s great to hear!”
“Thanks man, you too! You too!”
“You’re a guard! That’s great. How’dya like it?”
“Eh, it’s alright, man. Not, you know, not what I expected. Juss, paradin’ around. Few pickpockets now an’ then. But when I signed up, I thought it was gonna be real. Like killin’ bandits.”
“Killin’ bandits!” Mognyr echoed enthusiastically.
“Yeah, man. Thass the life,” the guard said wistfully. “How ‘bout you? Whadda you doin’?”
“Killin’ bandits! Thass the life. You’re livin’ the dream, man! Livin’ the dream!”
“Livin’ the dream!”
“You’re great, man, you know? You’ve, like, inspired me. ‘Morrow mornin’, I’ma go out, and I’m gonna kill some bandits!”
“Yeah! Killin’ bandits!”
“Killin’ bandits!” The newfound drinking buddies clinked two overflowing pints together. Ale sloshed onto the bar.
“Hey, man. Can I ask you something?”
“You seen a guy in a black cloak around town anywhere?”
“What,” said the guard, “you mean that sketchy motherfucker in the corner?”
Mognyr’s eyes widened. The guard pointed at the far corner of the tavern. The crowd had thinned since he first arrived, and now Mognyr could see the cloaked figure sitting there, still and silent.
He pushed through the crowd to the back corner and delivered a strong punch to the cloaked face.
The form fell limply to the floor.
“Stop! Stop! What’s going on?” the bartender cried, making his way through the crowd. He gasped at the sight of the unmoving figure on the ground. “Oh my lord—”
He turned to Mognyr. “Quickly—get this to the back room….” Mognyr and the bartender moved the body into the back room before the halfling ran back out into the tavern to salvage the situation. Mognyr’s guard friend agreed to go find the rest of the group, and after about forty five minutes of drunken stumbling he retrieved them.
“What happened?” Maruk asked.
“That’s the same man that was here earlier,” Gdom recalled.
“He’s been here all day?” Mognyr asked. The rest of the group nodded. However, this was not the man Mognyr was looking for.
It was obvious to even the least perceptive of the group that the man was dead. Thia and Ugarth attempted to use their knowledge of healing and nature to discover the cause of death, but there was no identifiable mark of injury or reason for him to be dead. He had been dead long before Mognyr struck him, before the rest of the group ever entered the Wheezy Warden that afternoon. There was nothing on his person but simple, everyday clothing—nothing in his pockets to identify him.
They did, however, discover that his left eyeball was made of glass.
It popped out easily, and Idria immediately recognized that it was giving off arcane energy.
“It’s very advanced… there are wards stopping me from deciphering the magic. I can’t tell exactly what it is, but I think it’s connected to another location,” she explained. She looked very interested. “I’ll keep it with me and study it more later.”
Ugarth stared in horror. “I don’t want that thing anywhere near me. We should bury it. Now,” he said, his voice intense with the gravity of the situation. The rest of the group seemed wary as well.
The bartender returned, exuding stress and confusion. When asked how long the cloaked man had been in the tavern or how he had gotten there, he replied that he had no idea.
“I… for the life of me, I can not remember….” the halfling mumbled, his eyes wide with bewilderment and a flicker of fear.
“Please,” he continued, “I won’t ask any questions, just, get it out of my tavern. Get—the body—away from here.”
Mognyr growled. “Why should we? It’s your tavern.”
The halfling stared up at the hulking gnoll above him, stress banishing fear, and replied sharply, “Because, good sir, I seem to recall seeing you punch this man in the face in front of a tavern full of witnesses, and now he is dead.”
Mognyr stood down.
“Point taken,” Maruk said. “We’ll take care of it.”
“Mother will be so happy to have food on the table,” Gdom said cheerfully.
They disposed of the body and it was finally agreed upon that Idria would carry the magical eye, wrapped in a cloth pouch and hidden away. The eventful first day of their adventure finally drew to a close and they retired to bed, ready for the journey in the morning.