The Silver Tower Chronicles Adventures in other worlds, other times, and other realities

24Oct/12Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0017

The snow was piling up fast. The chill in the air had begun to cause serious issues for the Irregulars. The amphibious Kava was having trouble staying awake. Eurysa was not doing much better. Aldebaran's tawny fur had grown thicker, and in her more animated moments the vodyanoi had called him a big fluff ball. Mayitso had the least problems. He already had a naturally thick coat and was used to being out and about in the worst of conditions.

Ritter was completely unprepared for the severity of the winter. Deep in the mountains, the Halz had little worry from the snow. While they would often send some of their people up to shovel out some snow to bring back as a source of fresh water, they never needed to deal with prolonged exposure. The heat of their hearths kept the chill out of their mighty halls, as well as the fires of their mighty forges. However, even Enzi found the furs they group used for warmth seeming too thin and threadbare.

The Feergrus sighed. It was to be a brutal winter. He decided it was time to upgrade their winter provisions. That meant he would have to go into town. That was not a problem in itself. Enzi knew he would have to deal with the shady Ravaleian Gharaf Targata. Enzi knew the merchant had the greatest access to hides in Center Point. His access to goods of all kinds was unparalleled in all the Disputed Lands. He was also useful as a broker of information. His buying power meant everyone had to deal with him at some point.

Many had tried to upset the balance of power and take Gharaf's seat at the top of the mountain. The fact that no one had unseated him meant that the Ravaleian was cunning and had the resources to hold onto his power. In a town like Center Point it also meant the Gharaf had to have powerful friends. Enzi always worried that some alliances that the merchant made would be with some rather distasteful folks. Dealing with such people had many dangers, not just for Gharaf but for all of Center Point. However, such villains would find a way to do business one way or another. Enzi had to admit that the wily Ravaleian was likely the best choice to deal with such dangerous people and survive.

Enzi trudged through the steadily gathering snow. Gharaf's shop radiated heat. It was built into the very stones of the ancient ruins. Gharaf had spared no expense to make sure that he would be comfortable during any weather. That also made sure that any customers would find a haven from inclement conditions as well. Enzi was quite surprised that more people were not at the shop. It was empty of customers. The Feergrus would have expected at least one person to have slipped in to escape the chill, if not to pick up an item or two. Perhaps everyone else had stocked up early.

Gharaf was relaxing behind his counter, enjoying the warmth of his hearth, “Ah, Enzi! How nice to see you. Whatever can I sell you today?”

The greedy green eyes of the Ravaleian showed no hint of malice. Enzi did not know of Gharaf's actions against the Irregulars. The Feergrus did not know that his information had been sold to the Cleanser known as Naphar Bura. He certainly did not know of Gharaf's involvement in the incident with Gierig. He also did not know of the organization known as Unity, nor of the Ravaleian's association with them. Gharaf also gave no hint that he had done anything wrong, not that he actually believed anything he did was wrong.

“Looking to stock up on some things for the winter,” Enzi replied, “Some food and some blankets.”

“Food is easy enough,” Gharaf said, “But you are not going to find any blankets. Not even at exorbitant prices. I already sold the few I had for some nice profit.”

“What is going on with the blankets?” the Feergrus man asked with curiosity.

Gharaf shrugged, “I didn't get my shipment this year. Usually I get a large batch of hides, but my source has not come in yet this year.”

A sly look crossed the Ravaleian's face, “Perhaps you want to earn your blankets, and a bit of coin as well?”

“A job? From you?” Enzi asked with suspicion.

“My source for hides is a recluse. A hermit if you will. He is a Kurrot and he takes the stereotype of their distaste of others to an extreme. However, his attitude and ability to survive alone have earned him the respect of the Hirkans. Each year when they travel north for the winter, he meets them at their trading post of Kanea. Outsiders normally don't get to visit, so he gains a large number of goods for the cost of trade in goods. Of course, he gets those goods from me. The hides are provided to me.”

“I worry that he has found a way to annoy the Hirkans,” Gharaf said, “That seems most likely. Either that or he finally found something worthwhile for his other hobby.”

“Other hobby?” Enzi asked with a touch of worry.

“He looks for strange and unique things to sell to the Collector. He keeps hoping to make a big score and be able to retire. I really don't see that as a possibility,” Gharaf said with a twinkle in his jade eyes.

Those eyes always made Enzi feel slightly uncomfortable. While green eyes were not unheard of for a Ravaleian, they were quite uncommon. The same held for blue eyes. While history said that Ravaleians were descendants of the Agonish people, their tendency to skin tones that were less dark and a sprinkling of eyes that were not brown suggested some other heritage also hid in their bloodline. The obvious answer was the Tarvoni, thanks to the strong friendship the Ravaleians showed to the mages that came to their lands.

“Perhaps you could go check on my friend,” Gharaf said, “If you can, bring me my hides. I will make sure you are well compensated. Plus you will have your much needed blankets. I suspect the winter will be quite harsh this year.”

Enzi grimaced. He could not see a reason not to take the job. With a shortage of hides, many people would suffer. While it was distasteful dealing with Gharaf, the Ravaleian had his uses. Finally Enzi relented.

“Okay Gharaf,” Enzi sighed, “Where can we find this Kurrot friend of yours?”

***

Aldebaran led most of Enzi's Irregulars through the snow, blazing a path with his massive body. A shivering Kava stayed behind him, sheltering herself from the chill wind. Eurysa followed her and Ritter was in the rear guard. Mayitso was busy bounding through the snow and outrunning the group. He was enjoying himself. He obviously was more comfortable in this weather. It made Ritter wonder where the lycanthropes normally lived. He seemed to have fully recovered from the incident at the auction ground. However, the brutality of the scene where the lycanthrope had slain so many had rattled the Halz.

He was working with monsters. They were sentient, but each was certainly not entirely civilized. More than ever Ritter respected Enzi for directing their violence in useful ways. However it also made him wonder about the possibilities of the humans and the Halz working together. He wondered if it was possible that the two races were just too different to ever entirely get along. Ritter decided he was not going to give up yet. The fate of his entire race depended on him finding a way to bring peace to the seven remaining clans.

It was interesting to be part of the group on their own again. Having Enzi with them on the last few missions had been interesting. The Halz had seen him fight. He had also learned that Enzi had not even brought his full power to bear in that fight. The Feergrus had been impressive enough, fighting without armor or weapon. The Halz hated to think how powerful Enzi might be if he used his talents as one of the shifters of his land. Ritter imagined that would have exposed Enzi far too much. The Feergrus did not need to draw too much attention to himself.

A snort from the minotaur brought the dwarf's focus back to the present. The group had arrived at their destination. It looked like a broken down shack near the edge of the Tarvo Forest. However, the Halz quickly saw that the looks were deceptive. As an engineer he saw that while the shack looked small and ramshackle, it had been built to cover up another structure. The Halz bet that it was another outpost once built by the giants in ages past, like the ruins at Center Point.

If that was true, it was very possible that the building had some extensive and very large rooms beneath the ground. The seven clan halls of the Halz were all built for giants. Ritter's people had been enslaved, much as the elves and humans had been. The giants had used the skill of the Halz to create the great halls. It was one reason that Tralenheim had been so beloved by Ritter's people. It was a place for the Halz only, built by the Halz. The Halz had suffered under the rule of giants for far longer than the other races, such an act of independence had given the Halz a sense of unity.

The fact that the giants had came back and defeated the Halz and all the other races to end the Second Goblinoid War was a terrible memory. It had been the humans, under the leadership of Ago, that had freed the land once again. That act had given the humans a great deal of respect within the hearts of the Halz. It was the source of the Earthbreakers and one reason that Ritter hoped that human example would aid his shattered people.

Aldebaran blazed a trail to the door of the large shack. It was locked, but the minotaur was polite enough to knock first. There was no answer, so Aldebaran knocked louder.

“Just knock the stupid door down already,” Kava blurted, “Its freezing out here. At least we will be out of this damn wind in there.”

The minotaur sighed, then kicked the door with one of his mighty hooves. The door shuddered and gave way before the fearsome assault. The wooden part of the building was certainly every bit as ramshackle as it had looked. The stone foundation upon which it was built, however, would certainly not have given way to such an attack. The minotaur did not immediately enter, so Kava rolled between his legs to get inside.

“Ooh, this feels nice in here,” she purred with her croaking voice.

“It smells... Sour,” Aldebaran said with a confused look, “That is unusual.”

The best nose in the group, however, was still bouncing and playing in the snow. The rest of the mercenaries poured into the shack. The warmth was comforting, but the Halz did notice the odd smell as well. It was not the smell of death, but the Halz certainly could not place it. It was slightly acrid. The odd scent did not daunt the mercenaries. They searched the shack and quickly found it empty of any life or immediate clues. Ritter knew that it was built on ruins, however, and surveyed the shack for a route to a basement. He was not disappointed.

“Here,” the Halz said, his completely black eyes spotting the hidden trap door, “A passage to the cellar.”

The group cracked open the trapdoor. It had been excellently hidden as just some more poorly laid floorboards. Mayitso still had not joined the group, but Ritter knew the lycanthrope would not let Eurysa go far without him. The four mercenaries slipped down the shaft and immediately Ritter felt an oppressive muggy air assault him. He felt an odd sense of revulsion as he stepped on the ground.

There was a sick crunching sound as he stepped on the floor. His eyes could easily peer through darkness and he did not see anything odd. However, there was also a crunching noise as he put his gauntlet on a nearby wall to steady himself. He took his hand off the wall and part of it stuck to his gauntlet. A goo or slime of some sort stretched from the broken off pieces of wall and the wall itself.

“Ugh, what is this stuff?” Ritter asked.

Eurysa found the ladder down a bit difficult to traverse. The floor felt horrific to her skin as pieces broke off and the slime trailed after her. While Aldebaran and Ritter could see perfectly fine in the darkness, Kava was nearly blind in it. Eurysa had decent night vision, as long as there was at least some ambient light. The same would hold true for Mayitso if he was there. Ritter lit one of the slime covered torches on the wall so all could see.

Bringing light to the scene did not help at all. While the dwarf could see shapes perfectly well in the darkness, without light there was no color. That was why the cities of the Halz were always well lit. They wanted to show off the gems and crystals they had mined. The sparkle and color was of great beauty to the eye of his people. What he saw in the basement of the shack was incredibly foul. The stone was covered with a shell that looked like stone except for its foul coloration. It was some mix of brown and green that almost exactly failed to please the eye.

As they continued down the oddly coated hall, they heard the skittering of a great wolf's feet on the floor above. The Ritter heard an odd sound. It was the pattering of human feet behind them. The group turned as Mayitso caught up to them in his human form. His icy blue eyes were wide with panic.

He spoke in the tongue of the Feergrus, “We need to leave now.”

There was a large crash behind them where the ladder was.

Mayitso merely sighed, “It is too late.”

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