The building hummed with an energy that enveloped them completely as they walked inside. Men shouted bets at one another across the room, tankards slammed into tables as their owners each sought to outdrink the other, cheers of victory and cries of dismay assaulted the ear in equal force, and punctuating it all, the regular chunk of throwing knives and arrowheads burying themselves into wood.
Eammon grinned as he spread his arms wide, as if to embrace the room and its ribald pleasures. “Now this…this I can work with. These are my people.”
“Degenerates and gutter scum, I see.” Roland shouldered past Eammon’s outstretched arm, knocking the old bard off his footing but not completely off his feet as the paladin moved into the press of the crowd. He didn’t look back.
“Must we rehearse this again? It wasn’t my—Bah!” Whatever else the bard planned on saying cut off abruptly as a ginger Tashkat dashed by, clutching a severed finger that may or may not have belonged to him.
Benji patted Eammon on the small of his back as the young halfling helped to steady the deflated man. “Things have really come a long way with Roland since the barge, Mr. Quinn. Just miles of progress. He’ll be speaking a civil word to you any day now.” He scrubbed a slender finger under his nose. “And the stink of river water is almost completely off ‘im.” Giving the old bard one final pat, the boy started to follow in the paladin’s wake before abruptly turning back with Eammon’s purse in hand. “You need to be more careful with your things, Mr. Quinn, ‘specially in a place like this. I can’t always be looking out for you, you know.”
The thief drifted back into the crowd as Eammon sighed, taking care to double knot the ties on his purse this time.
“Not going to bother checking how much he stole?” Del asked as he glanced past Eammon at the archery competition across the room.
“I gave up on that a long—”
“Good man,” the ranger replied, absently patting the bard’s shoulder as he pushed past and toward the archery butt in the back, already shaking his head ruefully at what must be a dozen instances of poor technique or mediocre talent spied among the competitors.
A low groan pulled Eammon’s attention down to Kokurl, who had stopped a few steps beyond the bard to survey the room, and ultimately, curl his lip at the Tashkat blood spattering the wooden floorboards. The dwarf looked pale, and when he glanced back at Eammon, he did so with red rimmed, bloodshot eyes. Truth be told, he actually looked better than he had the night before, but clearly, being freed from the axe’s curse had taken a toll. “You still don’t look yourself, Kok. Maybe a drink to settle your nerves?” he asked, gesturing not untheatrically toward the bar at the far side of the gallery.
“A fight would be better.” The dwarf cleared his throat, spat on the floor, and stalked off in the direction of the pit, where a lone man in a vest seemed to be holding three adult drakes at bay with only his steely gaze and outstretched hands. “Make it happen.”
Eammon lingered just inside the doorway a moment longer, but it appeared that a cursory glance of the establishment would be of little use. Not surprisingly, no hobgoblins were in attendance, nor did he see anyone resembling Todrik Samuels. Indeed, none of the patrons seemed particularly cultish at all—though a trio of young men at a corner table were wearing their cloaks with cowls up despite the rather oppressive warmth of too many bodies pressed together in mutually beneficial vice. The bard smiled wistfully, remembering the ridiculous affectations he had adopted during his own day. No matter the era, young men are the most willfully stupid creatures alive. His smile faltered just a bit. And indulgent fathers.
Eammon suddenly found himself in need of a drink, and as his responsibilities included that portion of the establishment, he stepped gingerly over the Tashkat blood and dwarven phlegm to make his way toward the long wooden bar that dominated its side of the room. A tiefling and an elf with an eyepatch worked the bar, both studiously ignoring the old man until he slapped a silver mark on the damp wood between them. That at least got the tiefling to wander over. Eammon pointed up at what he hoped was their better brandy, held his thumb and forefinger far enough apart to suggest a generous pour, then smiled and turned back around to survey his fellow wretches, degenerates, and otherwise upstanding gamblers. He waited for the bartender to ask if he was any good with the cittern on his back. He had a fair hand, yes. Indeed, he’d be happy to play for his drinks, and if the crowd liked it, maybe some information. No, no need for anything up front. Just point him to where he should set up.
He heard a drink slammed down behind him on the bar, and as he turned to address the tender, he had just enough time to luxuriate her retreating and clearly disinterested back with his most disarming smile. Eammon raised his glass in salute to her nonetheless and took a quick gulp of the murky brown liquid, and only his many years of stage training and a sudden and not inconsiderable sense of spite kept him from abandoning that show of teeth. The brandy tasted like someone had left a rusty penny in tepid pond water for a decade…yet if Eammon recalled correctly, there had been a dwarven moneylender nearly a century ago who tried a similar tactic during the latter portion of a life sentence, or so the story went. Maybe the comparison was more apt than he thought. Though if the establishment’s finest brandy barely rivaled dwarven prison hooch, then the sooner they finished their business and were away, the better.
Throwing back what remained of the brandy in a final gesture of defiance—it was already overpaid for, after all—Eammon stalked over to Roland, who was patiently waiting for a large man in a sleeveless shirt to finish talking. Even before the bard joined them he could smell the sharp stink of sweetroot on the man’s breath, the hobby of choice for those trying to kick a more serious habit. It stained the teeth pink as well, and Eammon found it difficult to look away from the man’s glistening mouth as he drew near. It looked like a wound.
“…can start at the bottom like everyone else. Or if that’s not good enough for your high and mighty self, you can find a card game or bet on the pit like the rest of us. But I won’t stand here and…”
Eammon slid between them with a flash of pristine white teeth sure to be the envy of even those not dentally ravaged by drug addiction. “Pardon the intrusion, my good sir, but I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion with my holier-than-thou friend here.” Roland’s jaw muscles tensed and Eammon took a beat to almost feel bad for the petty remark. “Surely you recognize the symbol of holy Erathis hanging from my companion’s neck? More to the point,” he added a conspiratorial wink, “surely you recognize the financial incentives at play here? Yes, this young paladin may be asking to jump the queue a bit, but think of his opponents. How many men will line up, coin in hand, to challenge the might of the god he represents?” The stranger narrowed his eyes. “Who among us wouldn’t want to stand toe to toe with the Divine? Why, even the holy tomes themselves say, and I quote—”
“Fine! Fine. He can have the next arm wrestling match. Just shut up. Please.”
“Deal.” Eammon grinned even wider, clapped the stranger on the back, and gently turned him around. “Now be a good man and set that up for us.” He kept smiling, waved a little as the man wandered off, and then waited another beat before turning back to the paladin. “See? My people.”
“Lute’s still on your back, I see.”
Eammon let the smile drop. “It’s not a lute. Any luck on your end?”
“None. Honestly, I don’t even entirely know what we’re looking for.” They stood in awkward silence until a nod from the sleeveless patron across the room indicated the pair should start pushing through the crowd to the raucous corner where the paladin’s arm wrestling bout awaited.
“By the way, what the blazes did you do to infuriate our new, fashion-forward friend so?”
Roland waited a bit too long to respond. “I just pointed out that the temple of Erathis has meetings for people like him.”
“People like him?”
“Well, sweetroot tends to—”
“Oh, I know all about sweetroot. That’s not the issue.”
Roland glanced over at the bard. “Stop rubbing your temples like that.”
Eammon tried not to smile as they finally arrived at the arm wrestling match. “Just trying to commit this to memory so I can somehow work it into the next ballad I write.” He sighed and rested a hand on the paladin for the barest moment before then pushing him forward. “You’re a good man, Roland.” The old bard paused. “I shan’t forget that again.”
Not surprisingly, the paladin made short work of the poor man sitting across from him, though Roland made sure to make it seem like more of a contest than it really was, and once it was over, he gave the man a squeeze on the shoulder and thanked him for a match well played. At about the same time, Del was obliterating the competition at the archery butts and showing no such signs of sportsmanship, only taking a break to visit Eammon for more money because, as he put it, “I’ll do the morons a favor and take their money in one or two goes rather than bleeding the dumb bastards with these cockamamie penny-ante stakes all night.” As soon as the ranger got what he was after, he trotted back to the archery competition.
The bard watched him go until the jangle of coin suddenly drew Eammon’s attention back to his coin purse, which was just coming to rest again on his hip. Muttering under his breath, the old man scanned the crowd, and so he just barely caught a glimpse of Benji’s topknot disappearing once more into the press.
“Not going to bother checking how much he—”
Eammon shot a glare at his companion. “You know that was his signal. The boy’s come up empty. Same with Del, apparently.”
“Doesn’t mean he didn’t.”
The bard scowled at Roland, who looked far more satisfied with himself than was respectable for a man of the gods, before relenting to spare a moment and weigh the purse at his belt. Did it feel a bit lighter? “Maybe Kokurl is having better luck than the rest of us.”
“Excuse me, sir. I’m told you’re representing the dwarf who’s about to face our champion in the next match?” interjected a new voice from behind Eammon.
The old bard closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between them. “Gods damn it.”
. . .
Eager to begin a session of recuperative violence and unwilling to wait for Eammon to arrange it, Kokurl had somehow managed to not only talk himself onto the list of fighters contending in the pit that night, but to actually skip all preliminary bouts to challenge the Bloody Nose’s resident champion. He didn’t particularly recall how he’d accomplished this feat, but in general, Kokurl had always found that if he got in a staring contest with circumstance, it was usually circumstance the blinked first.
And so the dwarf found himself standing in a modestly sized fighting pit, waiting for Eammon to arrive and digging at the ground with the toe of his boot to see how deep the sand lining the arena floor actually went. Turned out to be deeper than it looked, which meant he wouldn’t be able to rely on speed as much as he’d like, though there was the minor consolation that a well-timed kick could blind his opponent if he got the poor bastard low enough to the ground. He spent another few moments adjusting his tactics mentally to better fit the terrain until he felt the sand wouldn’t be a problem. The tunnel that accessed this side of the pit had no such lining, however, so Kokurl heard the old bard approach well before he chose to announce himself.
“Glad to see you’re sticking to your part of the plan, Kok.”
The dwarf merely grunted and pointed at the floor of the pit with a stubby digit. “See this sand here? Way too deep to be practical for men to be fightin’ men, even if it does make cleanup easier after the fact. Now if this place uses beasties in here most nights, however, well the sand makes more sense.” He paused, giving the bard time to keep up. “And if there’s beasties, they’ll need a handler, and if you don’t mind associatin’ with their filthy breed, then hobgoblins are the best animal handlers you’re like to find.” He turned around to finally grace Eammon with a flat stare. “So yeah, I found a sign, ye condescending prick.” He spat and turned back to the pit, awaiting his competition.
At about that moment, a monstrous half-orc entered the arena, towering at such a height that it had to stoop ever so slightly to exit the tunnel. Its gray-green skin stretched taught over the corded muscle beneath, the warrior spared a moment to toss his long braid of hair back over his shoulder before thrusting both fists into the air in response to the crowd’s roar.
“Wow! Look at the size of ‘im! And it’s not just because you and I are smaller than most, Mr. Kok. That’s a fearsome tall feller if ever I saw one, no matter the yardstick I were usin’.” Kokurl looked up to see Benji’s head sticking out over the lip of the arena directly above them, grinning from ear to ear as he watched the half-orc work the crowd and the arena emcee began introducing the bout.
“Bet it all on me, peck. Be quick about it.”
Benji eyed the half-orc again, shrugged, and disappeared without a word. Kokurl turned around to see why the bard hadn’t objected, only to find that the old man was communicating through a series of hand signals with another, much better dressed if smaller half-orc standing beside the arena champion. They went back and forth like this for another few moments before the well-dressed one—most likely the champion’s second or manager—ended the exchange with a mocking shrug, as if to say ‘You got yourself into this one, friend.’ Kokurl didn’t appreciate the tone of that shrug at all. It made him want to punch something. Hard.
Eammon abruptly cleared his throat. “Seeing as you may be about to take your second trip to the temple of Erathis in as many days, Kokurl, I thought I might take this interlude to apologize for—"
The dwarf made a dismissive gesture over his shoulder. “If I thought a hug would help me fight, Eammon, I’d already have two handfuls of those fancy velvet pantaloons and me face buried in yer’ lovely blouse.” He started rotating his arms in their sockets, loosening his shoulders as he rocked his head back and forth to work his neck. “All I need right now is the feel of this fist impacting that big bastard’s face and I’ll be as right as this glorious new mustache of mine.”
And right he was. What transpired next was one of the more one-sided bouts the Bloody Nose had ever seen. Once the combatants had closed upon one another, the dwarf simply kicked the half-orc in the knee, grabbed the warrior’s braid when he doubled over from the pain, and laid the giant out with a single punch to the face. Onlookers stood in stunned silence for a moment, the hush broken only by a tiny voice shouting “I’m rich! I’m filthy stickin’ rich!” from somewhere in the crowd, before the place erupted in applause. Kokurl merely turned and walked back to his tunnel, his pallor much improved and a self-satisfied smile on his face, just in time to see Eammon shoot a condescending shrug of his own at the champion’s manager.
Kokurl actually grinned. “That’s more like it, ye wee mangey ponce. I saw you taunt that bastard. Well done! You could do with a bit more ‘fuck you’ in yer day to day frippery, galavantin’ and all around poncery.”
Eammon inclined his head ever so slightly. “Your gift for language is truly staggering, Kokurl.” He gave his coat a quick tug to straighten it and adjusted the lace at one of his cuffs. “Though I admit you may be right that a bit more strut is in order.”
“’Course I’m right.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder as he turned back to the pit. “Now piss off. I’m gonna wait and see what I get to fight next.”
. . .
Eammon spent the next few minutes giving the Bloody Nose another lap, gathering up Benji, Del, and Roland from their individual pursuits to make their next move as a group. Upon returning from the pit, he had watched the now former-champion’s manager sidle up to a stool at the end of the bar, where almost immediately the tiefling barkeep had handed him a large, worn ledger and then poured him a drink from a bottle kept out of sight. He offered no thanks, nor really any indication that the tiefling existed, as he opened the long book and grimaced at something from its pages that seemed to offend.
The old man walked up to lean on the bar not far from the half-orc and his ledger, while Benji and Del took seats alongside the bard and Roland stood, taciturn with arms crossed, a few paces from Eammon. He hoped they weren’t presenting too aggressively, but even if they were, Kok’s performance in the pit had earned them an opportunity. Now Eammon just had to make sure they didn’t squander it.
“I’d ask if you were the owner of the Bloody Nose, but I’m worried after your man’s showing in the pit that you’d mistake my meaning.” He glanced up the bar and waved over the tiefling barkeep, who once again ignored him. Eammon admired her commitment to terrible customer service, and silently prayed she fall down a flight of stairs on her way home later that night.
The half-orc didn’t look up from his ledger. “Coming over to point that out seem like the best way to start our little conversation?”
Eammon turned to address the half-orc directly. “My apologies. I thought you’d appreciate the added drama we brought to the table.” The bard swung his arm wide to encompass the entire establishment. “Forgive me if I’m being over-bold here, but you don’t seem to be doing quite the bit of business tonight, and unless that ledger somehow sullied the honor of your family, I can only assume the numbers you’re glaring at on its pages confirm as much.”
The half-orc finally looked up from under his brow at the old man, his broken nose giving his face the unsettling effect of seeming to simultaneously look directly at and slightly away from Eammon. “And are you trying to shake me down so your dwarf can have a regular gig?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the fighting pit. “Best tell him first. He’s already fighting again, with nary a mention of privilege or pay to coax him on.” Eammon leaned back and squinted over the owner’s shoulder, and sure enough, Kokurl was slowly circling an adult brown bear, which was angrily swatting at the air between them as the dwarf alternated between shouting obscenities at it and expressing unqualified admiration.
With some effort Eammon tore his eyes away from the pit. “Not at all. Though I was hoping there were other ways my friends and I might be of service. It struck me as odd that a stranger, even one with the uniquely stubborn nature of our companion Kokurl, could so easily talk his way past the undercard bouts of the night.”
The half-orc sighed and closed the ledger. “Then you’re in luck, friend.” His tone suggested Eammon was anything but. “My damn handler went missing a week ago, and without him to manage the beasts I keep below the Nose, the pit’s degenerated to little more than drunken boxing.” He finally deigned to notice his drink for the first time, taking a slow sip of it before setting it back down on the bar. “I assume he was finally done in by one of the nastier pets he keeps down there for us, but the last barback I sent to check never came back either. So now I’m down my main attraction and the staff is threatening to quit.” He stared pointedly at the old man. “So unless you’re willing to take that dazzling wit of yours under this fine establishment to confirm whether one of my pet monsters finally killed my hobgoblin animal handler, I don’t see us having a whole lot more to talk about.”
At least, that’s how Eammon recalled the conversation going. Indeed, it had all seemed rather easy at the time, though thinking back about it now, he was starting to worry that the owner of the Bloody Nose had gotten the better end of the deal. Turns out the animal pens were part of a larger network of tunnels beneath the building, so the task of finding this hobgoblin was promising to be a more formidable undertaking than first expected, and though Kokurl had ultimately defeated the bear by actually picking it up overhead and hurling it against the side of the pit, the dwarf had insisted on staying to see after the beast and to enjoy the free alcohol and admiration that came with his sudden notoriety, so the party was going to work even more depleted than when they had first arrived.
Still, they had only just entered the passages beneath the Bloody Nose, and while it wasn’t an ideal situation, Eammon silently chastised himself for immediately assuming the worst. For all they knew, the beasts were all safely locked in their respective pens, their handler simply too busy with the day to day business of belonging to a hobgoblin cult seeking to resurrect the dark god Buliwyf to fulfill his duties facilitating blood sport entertainment for the lowest classes of Alans Crossing. No reason to assume this wouldn’t go well.
Del, however, seemed to be in a similarly somber mood. Even as the others glanced around the entrance chamber and did their best to inspect its contours with what flickering light the torches could provide, the ranger sat on his haunches, staring into the darkness ahead and muttering under his breath. “Not right.”
Eammon glanced over at the ranger. “What was that again, lad?”
Del nocked an arrow. “It’s the smell.”
Benji was listening now too. “What smell? All I smells is dank air and wet fur.” He studiously avoided looking in the paladin’s direction. “And a bit of river water, I suppose.”
The ranger still seemed to be talking to himself, scanning the darkness as he slowly brought his bow to bear. “They ain’t used to being underground, you see. They hunt outdoors, where they can come at you upwind, and you sure as nine hells won’t see ‘em or hear ‘em coming.” He breathed deeply again. “But they can’t mask their smell down here.”
Roland took a step closer to Eammon and put his free hand out, keeping the bard where he was. “What ‘them,’ Del?”
The ranger didn’t respond, simply nodding his head ever so slightly toward the monstrous cat stalking silently out of the shadows, its purplish-black pelt drinking in what little light there was as the tentacles growing from its back lashed about lazily.
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.” He gripped his hammer with both hands and slowly took a step forward. “Everyone behind me. Del, covering fire. Benji, look for your opening. Eammon…sing or something.”
It sounded like a solid plan to Eammon. And he was certain it would have worked splendidly—so long as that second displacer beast hadn’t pounced on young Benji from behind and dragged him screaming into the dark.