Variel poked a crude fork at the concerning amount of meat recklessly tossed in some sort of fetid, quasi-fermented fruit sauce. The dining room of Zholta’s assaulted his senses from every angle, but the odors were the most oppressive; dense humanity with an almost reverential attitude towards a soiled state of being. The raw odor of garlic clashed with floral herbs, homemade “wine”, and dung. Grease smoke penetrated every surface, which left a disturbing film that homogenized color into muted shades of grime.
It was fortunate that very little light managed to penetrate the walls, even the dim illumination revealed too much to his sharpened eyes. Insects, the heirs of sentient life the world over, scuttled across arms, though scalps, in the food, on and under foot in the fastidious work of pestilence.
Variel had traveled to countless cities and lands in his years of study. None had he found so oppressively foul as the Sandmaze besieging the walls of Sandwatch. He glanced to his dining party as a distraction from the milieu. Variel almost laughed out loud at the humor of fate, how had it lead him to dine with a trio of divinely righteous warriors with more use for death and the dealing of it than attempting to understand the underpinnings of the world.
He tugged the corners of his mouth from their spreading grin back into a solemn scowl. Best to match everyone else, lest they grow envious of his mirth. He nodded to Ishrana and set his fork down purposefully. With relaxed precision, he poked and prodded the fabric of reality around him while using a river of syllables to direct the flow of ambient energy.
The air seemed to thicken; he knew it wasn’t actually air, but space-time itself enveloping his body like a cloak. There were innumerable ways to render oneself invisible with magic these days, but Variel was fond of this particular approach. Having dedicated so much of his life to the space between realities, it felt comforting to disappear into it, if only for a few minutes.
Wrapped in his little pocket of invisible space, he wound his way through the crowded dining hall towards the kitchen. He was nearly bowled over by a quick moving server balancing a carafe and three plates, but safely made it into the bustling preparation area. Two cooks were busy by the fireplace, chopping parts off a handful of butchered animals on a table. A few assistants busily chopped vegetables or folded dough, all of them sweating profusely in the heat. Variel cringed, but gingerly meandered through the gaps between table and sweaty kitchen staff.
Ducking around an awkwardly-placed drying rack of some kind, he entered the rear pantry. A door to the narrow alley stood ahead of him, while stairs to the upper level lay at either end of the room. Barrels, sacks, a small staff table, and a plethora of vermin occupied the dark room, and he saw no need to step among the debris.
He lightly twisted knots of space-time and tugged on them, again using his voice to direct the flow of energy in his invisibility pocket upward, and he floated free of the ground. He gently ascended through the stairway into the second level, finding a well-decorated room with rich curtains and well-made, if soiled, carpets. A trio of men chattered idly as they reclined on cushions around a large, traditional beninite dining table. He continued past them down a narrow corridor, passing a closed door, careful not to disturb the curtains.
At the end of the hall, a door to his right opened into a sparsely furnished room with sleeping mats of old sacs and a broken table. A couple of individuals lay resting. He turned to the door across the hall, which apparently lead to a balcony overlooking the wider street in front of Zholta’s. He could hear the chatter and music of the patio crowd.
He passed easily through the curtains, and nearly ran into a pair of beninite women dressed in fine, immodest clothing. They chattered in rapid baiha, deep in a conversation about men. Variel shook his head. Human societies with their endless obsession and conflict between genders confused him. In the woodlands of his village, relationships were such a natural and simple endeavor. How did these city-dwellers manage to make them so complex?
One of the women seemed to notice another presence, pausing in her long critique long enough to glance around. Variel took his cue and drifted through the other doorway on the balcony, leading to the only unexplored room in the structure. He heard the suspicious woman yelp. Damn .
He sped into the room, apparently a parlor, the far end curtained off. He heard the men from the other room shout questions; he heard heavy footsteps on the wood floors. Damn .
The wizard flew out an open window like a ghost and lowered himself gently back down to earth. Out of sight from the main road, he let the twist of space-time enveloping him snap back into place, and walked around the front. His frown deepened as he brushed against several patrons on his way back to the table and his partners’ expecting faces.
“I didn’t see him,” he said in low kent, confident that few of the immigrant beninites would understand him. The holy warriors sighed and stabbed at their plates in frustration. Except Deldund, who had no food left to stab.
“This bunch runs the level, er, neighborhood,” The algran clansman all but growled, “Best be checkin’ about.”
“Peck could be hidden anywhere,” the conspicuously armored ridge-rider sighed.
“They won’t stray far from their hole,” Variel had still not quite placed the strange accent in their newest partner’s voice. She was obviously beninite, dressed in the ancient tradition of the desert nomads, but it was not any baiha-touched kent he’d ever encountered before. He hated mysteries; the unknown was a thorn in his mind, scratching his considerable cerebellum until answered.
“Shall we begin? The sooner we leave this place the better,” he urged, standing visibly this time and withdrawing a few pence from his pouch and sliding them next to his untouched meal.
Tahira watched the wizard closely as he walked in the shadow between buildings ahead of her. The group’s quest seemed legitimate, but Sandwatch did not contain a single soul that could be completely trusted. She scanned the waddle and daub walls for thin cracks or disturbed earth indicating hidden doors, but kept equal attention on the endaron. He appeared to be a summoner, which concerned her more than the other two combined.
If any of her new “compatriots” were going to know what her father was, it would be this expert of the planes. He was also the most dangerous; the others were brave, but hard-headed. Soldiers from militant cultures trained from birth to charge, weapon flailing, at their foes. Not impossible to out think, but this one disdained from straight-forward combat, manipulating his enemies and the material between them. Dangerous.
“Here,” Variel ran a delicate and across the wall’s surface, tracing the outline of a small door at ground level. Pointed-out, the door was still difficult to spot. Well made, far beyond the abilities of most beninites. There appeared to be no way to open it from outside.
“Secret escape route, perhaps,” she said, “This is a carpet merchant, what would he need a hidden trap door for?”
“I’ll collect the others,” Variel disappeared around the front of the restaurant. Tahira studied the air around her, glancing around to make sure no one had been spying on them. She lifted her generous sleeve to run her fingers across the jade surface of her amulet. The crystal scarab fluttered its hard wings in appreciation, turning about in its mounting. Trust them? the holy insect inquired.
Enough she replied through their soul-bond. The messenger bug fluttered its wings again and ran a foreleg over its cephalothorax. Tahira followed Variel out into the street.
“_Do you think he’s in there?_ “the kard was asking, using an unfamiliar dialect of illossillion.
“If so, he’s likely to be in the basement,” Variel said, decidedly in kent. Using the endaron tongue was more suspicious than anything else they were likely to do today, and Tahira was glad at least one of this troupe had some sense.
“Then we search the place,” Stonefist grumbled, brushing past them in his characteristic, not-quite-straight line. Supposedly the algran had been granted some kind of mystical ability to see despite his gruesome lack of eyes. It was obvious he could see some things, and Tahira was getting close to realizing what exactly he could distinguish. There was always a pause when he entered rooms, as if he had to focus to find his bearings. He grew irritable in crowds, but that wasn’t uncommon in his thinly-spread kinsmen.
Apparently agoraphobia wasn’t the only trait he shared. Deldund approached the narrow doorway of the carpet market with a purposeful march devoid of any grace, and walked awkwardly through the embellished curtain across the portal.
Tahira and the others quickly moved to follow. The market was dark, musty, and awash in colors from a hundred different patterns. The middle-aged proprietor emerged from the folds of the room.
“ Hello, Welcome! I am Gheshan, what sort of weavework are you looking for? “ the short beninite fired off in clean baiha. Deldund was before the man, hood covering his head. The cleric hadn’t comprehended a single word, but a merchant’s introduction was universal.
“I need a rug,” Deldund barked.
“Well, correct place you found then. You are clansman? What range?” the merchant slipped into crisp kent.
“Algran,” Variel replied first, hoping to cut-off an uncomfortably complicated conversation about the differences between Oslinder and Rol names for mountains.
“Of course, of course! Step right this way, I have a master weavework befitting any hall,” the salesman slipped back into the folds of the room, beckoning Deldund and Variel to follow as Tahira and Ishrana entered.
As the merchant swung a complicated array of bars and racks, a stunning, intricately patterned fold of rug appeared. Sparkling lines of gold and silver laced through the design, which was obviously influenced by traditional clansman iconography. Deldund stared unmoved slightly above the display.
Variel edged past them, backing nearer to the center of the structure, searching for anomalies in the floor. Ishrana moved up behind Deldund to watch the entrance and the merchant, who was extolling the virtues of the selected rug to Stonefist’s unseeing eyes. Tahira followed the wizard, browsing the weaveworks.
“It costs but fifteen hundred kingmarks, good sir,” the merchant finished with a flourish, “quite a bargain, considering the quality and rarity.”
“Hoo!” Tahira heard Stonefist’s dismay clearly through the mats of carpet, “Are ye’ daft? Cheaper.”
Variel swept a layer of carpets away from the floor, revealing a small panel with an iron ring attached. Tahira spun a display around to further hide their activities as the merchant bubbled arguments. It would certainly be rare for him to have a clansman customer, and with the Kard in full battle armor, he certainly looked to be a lord on travel with his knightly bodyguard. The merchant was too engrossed to notice Variel opening his trapdoor and disappearing into the dark crawlspace beneath.
Several minutes passed by, during which Stonefist directed the carpet-man to another display with rugs a fraction of the cost. Tahira continued to peruse until Variel re-entered the shop from the street door.
The sentinel glanced back at the open trap-door, keeping her sigh to herself. She slowly concealed the door again, and rejoined the others.
“You’ve nothing but shoddy hobby-works, I’m not for wasting marks on it,” Stonefist grumbled, just a hint of menace in his voice. He turned and marched out the door back into the blasting sunlight as the merchant followed after, practically begging for him to return, and turning to the entourage as they passed, trying to salvage a sale.
“What did you find,” Swaythe asked as they walked among the crowds of the Sandmaze.
“Not here, back at the inn,” Variel seemed stiff, but no one pushed the issue. Neither could they help but notice that the endaron’s backpack was a lot fuller than when they’d gone into the carpet shop. They walked in relative silence back through the entry queue where their weapons were again peace bound by the West Watch.
Wandering through the far-less-crowded, seamless streets of Sandwatch proper, they quickly made it back to the Dawncrest in the saffron quarter. Eddis nodded as they passed through the lobby on their way to Variel’s room, where most of their things were. Cocolongo and the woman who’d only been introduced as Rose were inside, fully clothed.
Variel quickly let his pack thud onto his bed, and then pulled out something wrapped in a dusty carpet.
“You stole a rug?” Stonefist demanded.
“By Gelnor, why do keep breaking the law?” Ishrana was exasperated. Her anger only grew as Variel unwrapped a chest and opened it, revealing a mound of gold coins within, “What did you do?!”
“There was another chest in the crawlspace,” Variel stated, unperturbed, “There was a disassembled body in it.” This got Tahira’s attention.
“How old?” she asked.
“Not my area of expertise, but I would guess at least a week.”
“The shopkeeper had a body in his crawlspace next to a chest of…” Ishrana paused, staring at the coins.
“Two thousand kingmarks give or take some for imperfect smelting,” Deldund continued for her.
“We should question the body,” Tahira stated, her scarab fluttered in anticipation.
“Yes, we need to investigate how he was killed and if the carpet merchant is actually the carpet merchant.
“Bah!” Deldund grated, “this Salty-blood gang runs the neighborhood, and this Sandmaze is a landscape of villainy. We can’t go chasing every thief in a thieves’ den.”
“You’re correct, Deldund,” Variel offered, “but being immediately adjacent to Salted Blood gang’s base of operations could mean the shopkeeper or the body in his basement knows more about the gang’s operation.”
“For all we know, that could be Peck in the basement,” Ishrana realized.
“No, the deceased was clearly beninite,” Variel corrected.
“What’s going on?” Cocolongo asked from the corner, staring wide-eyed at more coin than he’d seen in his life.
“You’re involved with more murderers now?” Rose asked.
“Calm, Rose, we’re not any more danger than we were upon entering the city,” Stonefist’s attempt at a soothing voice was hampered by his gravelly accent.
“My name is not Rose, Deldund, I have no name,” the woman insisted.
“Damn it,” Ishrana’s fist turned into an accusatory finger, aimed at Rose, “You have a name, until you give something to call you I’m calling you Rose,” she pointed the finger at Variel, “ and you just stole two thousand kingmarks from a gang’s neighbor,” the finger traversed to Tahira, “What do you mean question the body ?”
“Swaythe, you’re not helping,” Stonefist ground the room to a calm. “We need to focus on finding Peck, so we can get to this damnable wyrm lair, find the bloody book we’re looking for, and stop the Enemy from destroying everything my ancestors accomplished.” A long pause filled the room.
“I have to purchase some scrolls,” Variel replaced his spoils into his backpack.
“Is that why you stole that?” Ishrana demanded.
“No doubt these ill-gotten gains were themselves ill-gotten,” Tahira said. Her scarab had shivered appreciatively at the mention of scrolls, “What better purpose for the coin than furthering a noble cause?”
“Fine,” the paladin wasn’t going to win here, “I’ll check in on McEwn and Rambellow.” She huffed out of the crowded room and stomped down the stairs toward the stable and her horse. The group exchanged glances before Variel collected his bag and left for the violet quarter.