Seagate. Third week of the month of Misting (early spring).
The flood was still in full effect, but at least the endless rain had finally stopped. Low clouds scudded over the trees, and mist covered the broad river. This area was known as Swamp Bottom. Here the Auridan House had been forced to settle after the treacherous Delrast Company Mercenaries had tricked them out of their historical home on the northern side of the ridge that made up Seagate; the buzzing insects were already out in force and frogs or some other critters howled in the swamps and rice paddies outside the dikewall. The dikes surrounded Swamp Bottom and the windmills turned and clanked day and night keeping the water out of the settlement. The main city was across the river from the swamps just a walk across the bridge but seemingly on the other side of the world.
Cleon Auridan slapped at a mosquito on his neck with a pudgy hand. “Gods, I hate these infernal things,” he muttered. He had missed the bug and made a red mark on his neck. “Anyway,” he continued, ignoring the self-inflicted welt, “how do we maximize profit on this order?” He had a scroll unrolled on the table with two of the tiny marble erotic statues he loved so much as paperweights on either end. These were like most he purchased, having a man and woman intertwined in the act in anatomically improbably ways. It was obvious the sculpture paid more attention to rendering the explicit details rather than facial features. One hand ran through Cleon’s medium length hair distractedly.
“The priestess paid us plenty to acquire what she needs. Let’s just go and buy the slaves she wants,” the hard-faced armored man standing over the table said in a surprising tenor roughed by the harsh accent of the gorellen humans. The big blond warrior’s blue eyes looked down on his employer. As a mercenary, he had worked for some tough people in the past, but Cleon simply wasn’t that type. Instead, Cleon just wanted a bodyguard to intimidate the easily frightened and handle some occasional dirty work. As merc jobs go, that wasn’t bad, so Eyolf Wulfsen was happy to oblige.
“See, that’s why you aren’t a merchant. Yes, the priestess paid well, but she’s clearly insane. Some crusading group of adventurers will put her out of business in short order, so we need to maximize our profit on the orders we do get. They’ll steal everything that isn’t bolted down, murder everyone in the camp, and be spending what should be our gold no time.” Cleon frowned, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and added, “Besides, she’s just killing most of the slaves we bring her and turning them into those horrors.” He shuddered for a moment, and his bodyguard stifled a smile behind his long beard.
“Hey!” The merchant snapped his fingers in revelation. “What if we just captured people and sold them! That would be free.” His devious smile peeled back his lips and showed his glistening, pink gums..
“Um, that’s really illegal in town. And, illegal in most other places. The trade wardens would shut us down, and the fines would eat up any profit,” Eyolf said quickly.
“No, not this time of year. During the spring flood every poverty stricken drudge crams into the city like pickled herrings in a jar. The temples and charities feed them, and it is a huge pain, and expense, for everyone. We could also just accuse them of a crime if we get caught. Just don’t run of them through town, and it shouldn’t be a problem.” Cleon nodded sagely to himself with an expression intended to convey wisdom and command of the situation. He had practiced this same expression in front of a mirror and was really proud of it.
Eyolf had seen the journeyman merchant practicing the expression; he had not been impressed with it then and wasn’t impressed by it now. “I can’t use any of the house guards for something like this. We’ll need to hire some bully boys that we can deny ties to or cut loose if caught.”
“Fine, fine. You are in charge of all that. Just don’t pay too much for them.” Waving a pudgy hand in dismissal, the merchant rewarded himself with a candied orange.
A few days later three rough looking humans and one of the crocodilian meilosh stalked through the alleys in the southern most sections of the city. Each section was known as a “Reach” and was generally controlled by one of the six factions in the city. This one was controlled by the Gelder family and was known for farming and produced most of the city’s food. Most Reaches were ruled by wealthy trade families, like the Gelder family. However, the second Reach was controlled by the temple of Jelinari, and the third by a mercenary group. The sea elf confederation called the Seaworthies controlled a forth Reach; the elves had parked one of their living ships here centuries ago, and it had sprouted into something like a mangrove forest where they lived and grew their ships. The Silvershields were members of the Bronze Dwarven trading alliance and controlled a fifth Reach. Finally, the sixth Reach, the river Reach, was ruled by the squid-like tritons.
Now under the rule of the Delrast Company Mercenaries, the Foulberg Reach had been a prosperous area controlled by the Auridan family a century past until it was taken from them to pay a debt; rule over the area had then been given to the gnomish mercenary band. In a fit of rage, one of the Auridan mages had shattered the region with something called The Spellquake soon after, resulting in the current broken and devastated region that has once been prosperous.
Due to the Gelder’s practical monopoly on food production, Gelderland was also one of the wealthiest factions, and certainly no one would miss some of the flood refugees that packed its Reach each spring. Being food rich, there were a lot of refugees who sought shelter here until the waters receded. As outsiders, these refugees became easy targets.
The brutish thugs had already beaten and tied up three such unlucky refugees and were looking for another “volunteer” to be sold as a slave. The warrior who’d hired them, a great big gorellen man called Eyolf had told them the hours right around dawn would be their best hunting times, and it seemed to be true. Most of the transient drunks were passed out and easy prey, while the Reach’s citizens weren’t really up and around yet. The Scar was up this night, the evil looking tear in the sky which led to one of the hells beyond, and its bilious green light provided little illumination. The reptilian meilosh hissed, “Heressss one.” He grabbed a passed out human who, upon being jostled, woke up in the arms of a monster.
The waking man’s scream was partially blocked by a scaly hand shoved in his mouth, but that only muffled it and didn’t stop the man from yelling and squirming to get away. “Itssss an ugly one too,” the sauroid said, looking at the burns which covered most of the human’s head.
Something smaller than a man and quick as a lizard sprang up from where it had been laying curled up against the captured human for heat. “Hey! You puts down my friend!” the much smaller halnaak sauroid shouted up at the meilosh. The two creatures were a study in contrast. Meilosh were nearly five and a half feet tall and thick with muscle and iron-hard scales. Halnaak were barely four feet in height and proportionately slim. The crocodilian meilosh had impressive but snaggled teeth all down his muzzle, and the halnaak didn’t seem to have any teeth at all in his almost birdlike snout. That didn’t deter the little reptilian though. “You puts him down now!”
The meilosh kicked at his birdlike cousin, “Sssstand away, little lizard. You’re lucky we don’t want you, too.” The three humans gathered around the struggling man in the crocodilian’s arms. The captured man moaned and tried to yell for help. His shouts were still muffled by the meilosh’s invasive hand, and he seemed to have some type of speech impediment. The slurring was probably due to one side of his face being irreparably burned. It was bad enough to where movement was limited only to the other, unscarred side of his face. With the crocodilian holding him, the three humans tied their victim up in short order. The smaller halnaak yelled and bounced around them but was mostly ignored.
The little halnaak finally pursed his leathery lips and snuck up behind one of the men carrying his struggling friend. He jumped into the air and raked down the back of the bully boy’s leg with both clawed feet. The man screamed and dropped his load, the burned man, who hit the ground with a moan. The oldest of the three humans got a hard look in his eyes. “Hold him and use some of the burn juice.” He pointed to the twisting and writhing captive, indicating one of his guys should stay with their prize. The man nodded to the meilosh and knocked the struggling man out with a blow from his club. The other man and the sauroid drew their clubs and advanced on the halnaak who was hopping around, fluttering his short arms, not really knowing what to do. The one unclawed member of the gang of thugs who wasn’t chasing the annoying little reptile put away his club and took out a steel vial, dripping some of the liquid carefully onto the humans in the cart. They moaned, and little puffs of foul-smelling smoke vanished quickly in the morning breeze.
“Philodendron the magnificent should not run from alley thugs…” the halnaak whispered to himself, “But clubs would hurt a lot, and it is hard to be magnificent when bruised and broken!” He turned and fled, waving his arms wildly. After sprinting down the alley, he came to a pile of garbage around a corner. Diving into it, he opened up his scales, and took on a look almost like a pinecone – nothing like the smooth skinned reptile of a moment before. He quickly covered himself in trash and rotting food and left only his face exposed. Quickly licking his eye with a long blue tongue, he covered most of his face with the foul stuff of the alley as his scales slowly darkened to a leprous green color, much like the garbage that covered him. The one eye that wasn’t covered up narrowed to let him see what was happening without being too obvious.
Just a moment later, the big human and hard-scaled meilosh stalked down the alley. They peered left and right into the gloom and kicked at piles of trash. “I don’t sssssssssee the little cretin bosssssss,” the meilosh hissed in the early morning light.
“Keep looking. He couldn’t have gone far.” The man unknowingly kicked at the halnaak’s pile of trash. The kick shoved splinters from a broken board into the halnaak’s ribs, but he didn’t dare make a sound. Over the next several minutes, the two faded into the distance.
A little scaly birdlike head emerged from the pile of trash. Checking that he was alone, the halnaak climbed out of the pile. Two of his three clawed fingers on his right hand grabbed the sharp piece of wood in his side and pulled it out. He hopped soundlessly, squeezed his eyes shut, and danced about for a moment in pain. Twisting his whole body like a dog shaking off water, Philodendron the Magnificent froze with his two short arms akimbo, almost like an attack position. “Mmmm, if will become a great warrior, must be indifferent to pain. The stupid stick,” he kicked the broken board against the wall with a clatter and froze, eyes wide at the noise. When nothing happened, he resumed his diatribe, “Did not hurt Philodendron the Magnificent,” he said like he was trying to convince himself, “No, the only pain is losing friend. So now, go get friend.” Philodendron trotted back down the alley towards the cart, brushing trash off himself. “How to get friend? Must be clever and brave!” When he licked his right eye, some trash stuck to his tongue. Without pulling it back into the confines of his mouth, he made cat gagging sounds and scraped off the detritus dangling from the tip of his pointed tongue. Soon, bad-tasting crisis averted, he continued on his way.
The healthy thug at the cart had bandaged his fellow who was leaning on the cart’s mule. The mule didn’t look very interested in the proceedings and flicked his ear at the injured bully’s grumbling. To express his overall interest in the conversation, the beast dropped a steaming load onto the road that spattered the injured human. With an oath of disgust the injured tough hopped away. The healthy bully boy rang a small bell and began shouting, “Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.” The dawning light turning to morning, merchants filled in the trade square with their carts or opened up their stalls.
A couple of trade wardens, the splint-armored police force of SeaGate, shouldered through the crowd. Leading them was a thin, dusky-skinned human in a once rich but now a bit tattered merchant’s robes. “Here, wardens. These men are in the spot I lawfully rented for my wares! Move them right away.”
The oldest of the two wardens, a white headed human still beefy but with a sagging gut instead of the trim appearance you would expect of a warrior, grumbled, “Right, move the wagon along now.”. He spoke like he was exhausted, but his eyes never stopped moving and scanning over the crowd. The younger man to his side wasn’t as tall but seemed much more energetic.
The tough wasn’t acting so brave in the face of armed and armored men. “With respect master warden, we’ve a plague cart here. I was told my two comrades would work through this alleyway and pull out any man, woman, or child showing signs; then we was to take them to a temple for examination.” The big blond thug with old scars from poorly healed acne bared his yellow teeth in what was supposed to be a winning grin.
The two wardens and offended merchant stepped back at the mention of plague. “Plague you say? Good gods, man, I’ve heard nothing of that.” The older warden took his hand off the handle of the club in his belt to rub his beard. “When did it break out?”
“I don’t know. We only found out last night. We’ve been working all night to get the victims out of town.” He dramatically pulled back the sheet from the four humans he and his friend had captured. They had all been knocked unconscious, and the drops of fireberry juice had blistered and burst into what looked the tell-tale signs of melt fever. Plague was always a fear during the spring floods when the city filled with refugees. Merchants started whispering of the rumored outbreak to each other around the market as soon as it was said out loud by the rough men.
“Get that cart out of here! Right now!” the older warden roared. “Clear a path; this wagon is moving.” He pointed to the two thugs with the cart. “You’ll let one of the wardens know anytime you come to do work like this. Now, get moving.” Merchants and the handful of housewives or servants in the market cleared a wide path from what they thought was a plague cart.
The two toughs, one limping and grimacing, got their cart moving slowly through the market. Every once in a while, the one without the bleeding leg would ring his bell and chuckle at the cleverness of his employer. Nobody would have thought a big, tough gorellen would have thought of a well-orchestrated plan like this. Most of those gorellen meat-heads use their muscles instead of their brains. He’d have to watch that Eyolf character as an up-and-comer in Seagate’s underworld.
Just a few moments after the “plague” cart had gone out of sight a little, the trash-covered halnaak darted out of the alley. Where his friend had been lying on a cart, he saw a human in sumptuous red robes trying to move a mule pile without actually touching it. “Hello,” the lizard chirped, tilted his head to the side, and watched the merchant’s fruitless attempts at wishing away the mule’s fresh gift. “Was there recently a cart with people laying in it right here?” Like most of its kind, when talking, the reptile bobbed its head left and right to see with each eye. It was a disconcerting motion to those not used to it.
“Shoo, shoo. You disgusting little thing.” The human waved its hands at Philodendron the agnificent in a vague “go away” gesture. “You probably have the plague, too.”
“Plague? What means plague?” Philodendron cocked his head to the side like a puppy trying to understand something and licked his right eye.
“You know, plague. A disease that poor people get for living in the streets. Be off with you. Go infect somebody else.” The merchant grabbed a broom from his cart of wares and waved it with some menace.
“Friend did not have a disease! Which way did cart go?” Phil hopped up and down in anger.
“That way.” The merchant waved in the direction of the central road into town. “But go see a priest first. Filthy thing.” He pulled his cart into place and began to set up for the day’s business.
“Hmmmmm. What to do? Must rescue friend, but how?” Phil scratched under his chin with one of his clawed forefingers as he thought. “Hey, I should go see a priest! Little human priestess gave us a present of the sun! She will surely help.” He squared his little scaly shoulders and marched towards the temple of Sol where they had followed the little girl several weeks before. His friend, Blinden, had told him it was a place of powerful magics and for the worship of knowledge.