A Desperate Bargain

Isak strained against the fiery coils that restrained and burned him through his (masterwork) armour. He twisted and turned, trying to break free before he incinerated, but the magicks of the Ordinator Arcanis were proving too strong.

He looked around for help from his fellows, and soon realized he was on his own. Kane was also struggling against the coils, but he was beyond reason; his hands were coated with Terrlen’s blood like crimson gloves, having launched himself into a savagery to match the wild beast unleashed from deep within Terrlen. Problem was, Terrlen was down, but Kane would need his wits about him to deal with their current predicament and it wasn’t clear he could get it together in time.

It didn’t look like the Winter Guard had much time anyway. Brugg had leveled Odus with a thrown rock (Rock! More like thrown-piece-of-building!) and the bard was reeling from the shot. This let the ogre bear down on Garrick, who also saw the Bronze Warder lumbering in his direction. He seemed to not know what to do; whichever one he didn’t engage would crush his friends. Isak remembered seeing this look on his friend’s face once before, and that situation didn’t end well either.

Brugg was laughing the whole time. “You’ve had this coming, little dandies! Oh, yes! It’s been a LOOONG time coming! Ha, ha ha!! There’s nothing that can stop me from sucking the marrow from your bones!”

Dazed, with blood coming down his head, Odus weakly responded “We were attacked… we didn’t break… your rules…”

“Who cares?!” roared Brugg. “Rules or not, you’ve brought nothin but disruption into the Hall! There’s no reason to let you live!”

Odus was still having trouble concentrating, but Isak had a sudden insight. There IS a reason they might let us live! We have something they don’t! Looking around at his companions and the dire situation they were in, he played his card.

“Paldemar!!” he called out at the top of his lungs. “We know about Paldemar!”

Brugg was right about to throw another missile, when he paused to look at the Ordinanor Arcanis, who had another spell of eldritch fire on its hands ready to go. However, the Ordinator also paused… and suddenly its metallic voice ringed out throughout the cavern: WHAT-DO-YOU-KNOW-ABOUT-PALDEMAR?

Isak knew he had bought the group some time, but he needed Odus. He looked over at his friend who was magically inducing his next words with enchantment, for whatever it was worth in dealing with the Ordinator Arcanis.

“We have a lead on his location, as well as his current alliances,” shouted Odus, hitting the word ‘current’ to draw attention to the fact that he may have gone rogue.

The desired effect materialized. The Ordinator Arcanis stopped its spell and with a wav of its hand, dismissed the fiery coils restraining Isak and Kane. The Bronze Warder stepped back to the side of the Ordinator and Brugg reluctantly dropped his rock. Again, the metallic voice filled their ears: YOU-WILL-PRESESNT-YOURSELVES-AT-THE-BASE-OF-THE-GREAT-MINOTAUR-STATUE-24-HOURS-HENCE! TO-BE-ABSENT-IS-TO-FORFEIT-YOUR-LIVES!

The Ordinator floated away, back across the bridge. The Bronze Warder scooped up Terrlen’s bloodied form and followed suit, its footseteps causing tremors. Brugg snorted in frustration and headed towards the main gate. Isak felt bad for anyone trying to get in today.

Healed up from their fight against Terrlen and the forces of the Hall, the winter Guard warily approached the great minotaur statue near the center of the Hall, a clear landmark and site of the previous minotaur civilization. They had been received back into the Halfmoon Inn with some trepidation by the halfling proprietors; they did not want any trouble with the official forces of the Hall. Nevertheless, they had shushed their other patrons who stared at the Winter Guard as they limped in, brought the weakened heroes to their rooms and brought broth to them in their beds. The halflings good-naturedly nursed them back to health.

It was not limited to the Halfmoons, however; at one point, a young woman entered with fresh bandages. Garrick looked up and furrowed his brow. “I know you, don’t I?” She nodded and lowered her head. “Not really… we haven’t officially met, really, but… I was a captive of the duergar. You freed me. Freed us. When we returned here, the halflings were kind enough to offer me a place to stay and work. I have nowhere else to go since my fiancee was killed by the dark dwarves and we were headed to his homeland. Until I figure out what to do, the Halfmoons have offered me refuge.”

Garrick leaned back and rested. It was good to know all their struggles had not been in vain.

The heroes stood in front of the statue. Kane, ever vigilant, looked around for potential ambush; after the affair with Amelia, he saw spies and assassins everywhere. Isak kept his mighty falchion drawn, ready for action.

Garrick, look,” said Odus, indicating a circle of arcane ruins at the base of the minotaur’s stone feet.

Garrick nodded. “Teleportation circle. Everyone, face this way.”

The heroes waited for a few moments longer when suddenly a flash of light blinded their eyes. When they could see again, a short man with black goatee and widow’s peak stood in front of the statue. He wore midnight blue robes, similar to the ones worn by the Ordinator Arcanis. He had beady, quick eyes and an untrustworthy smile.

“Hello. I am Orontor, one of the Mages of Saruun. We have much to discuss, you and I.”

Odus cocked an eyebrow in surprise. “Here?”

“Oh, yes. My colleagues can monitor our discussion from their location quite easily. We are private enough, otherwise. But I am a busy man, with many irons in many fires, so let’s have it: What do you know about Paldemar”

“He has betrayed you!” hissed Kane.

Odus jumped in. “Well! That is, at least, one possible version of events. How long has he been missing?” Odus knew in negotiations such as these, it was best to tease one’s opponent with a bit of information, leaving them to wonder what else you knew.

Orontor smiled. He had obviously played this game before. “Missing? Being absent from the Hall for a few days hardly seems like ‘missing.'”

Odus faked an air of surprise. “Days? I had understood it to be weeks. Perhaps the error is mine?” Sometimes, it was as important to let the opponent know when one was not bluffing as it was to conceal a bluff.

“Or mine,” Orontor admitted with a smile. “At any rate, I am to understand you have information about his whereabouts?”

This was where Odus had to be careful. He had no idea what alliances the Mages of Saruun had with different factions in the Labyrinth, and if they differed from Paldemar’s. Although the presence of the gnolls was, apparently, a relatively new phenomenon, he knew he had to test the information. “Yes, indeed we do. It came to us after we were ambushed by a gang of gnolls. Were these servants of yours?” he left the question hanging.

Orontor’s eyes narrowed. “No… too chaotic to deal with reasonably. How did a gang of gnolls have information about Paldemar?”

“They didn’t, exactly. They wore insignia marking them out to be Blackfangs… have you heard of them?” lied Kane.

Orontor seemed to grow agitated. “No. what of it?”

“Well,” stepped in Odus. “It seems Paldemar has.” With that, he handed one of the letters to Orontor for inspection. The mage quickly read it over, his eyebrow arching several times during his reading.

“Paldemar is one of your Mages of Saruun,” accused Kane.

Orontor scoffed. “Why would you say that?”

“He knows how to command a Bronze Warder,” the vampire cooly replied.

“Unless,” broke in Odus, “you have lost control of the golems to outsiders…?”

Sensing the corner he was being maneuvered into, Orontor relented. “Yes, his is. Or, rather, was. He has been missing for some time and has shielded himself from our divinations. This, along with his complete cut-off from contact, can only mean he does not wish us to know what he is doing. Since we are rather… liberal… in our arcane pursuits, it would seem what he is up to would be most inconvenient to us, along with the other residents of the Hall.”

“So, his apparent alliance with the gnolls…?” pressed Odus.

Orontor smirked his face in disgust. “Demon worshippers. Nothing good ever comes from that. This ‘ally’ the letter speaks of…what do you know of him or her?”

“We had hoped you would be able to shed light on it,” replied Odus without missing a beat.

Orontor’s eyes narrowed. “Hmmm. Yes, well, unfortunately nothing comes to mind. I am sure you will tell me when you discover whom it is,” he added with a smile.

“Excuse me?” snapped Kane, with Isak laying a restraining hand on the vampire’s arm.

“There is the small matter of the violence intercepted by the Ordinator Arcanis,” purred Orontor. “There is only one penalty for transgression of the rules in the Hall. Fortunately, we are all people of commerce here,” he continued, his smile growing wider. “Sometimes, if it makes good economic sense, one can work off one’s penalty by providing service to the Mages. This is the opportunity you are being given now. As a gesture of good faith, whilst you are gone, I will instruct the Ordinator to not look too closely at the carnage of the duergar outpost.” His smile almost consumed his whole face at this point, and he had looked pointedly at Kane when he said the word ‘carnage.’

Now it was Odus who was trapped. “And when we return with information of your former colleague…?”

“Your debt will be squared away,” finished Orontor.

The heroes reluctantly nodded their heads. They could not afford to make enemies of the Mages of Saruun. And like everything else here in the Seven-Pillared Hall, it was business…

“One thing,” began Garrick. “To follow up on this lead, we need to navigate the Labyrinth, and your ogre took our guide…” Garrick was hoping to find out Terrlen’s status.

“Ah, yes. The beast-man. I have seen this sort of thing before. I have returned him to his home. He is wearing an enchanted torc of pure silver; this should stop any transformations on his part as long as he does not suffer any undie psychic trauma. Whatever you did to cause the transformation yesterday is behaviour that should be discontinued.”

Oh, how right you are, thought Kane. How very right you are…

“I expect to hear from you in a week’s time. If I do not, or if you have nothing to show for your efforts, your lives will be forfeit.” Another flash of light, and the Winter Guard stood alone.

“Let’s pick up Terrlen. We have no idea how long Delphina and Ellian have, and so there’s no time to waste.”

Author: Eric