Slypher hugged the shadows well away from the nameless tavern's broad hearth, nursing his cheap mug of sour ale. The day had gone badly. There had been no fat purses in the milling throngs. People were tense and nervous in Pordigran, the Most Holy City. Their thoughts had jangled madly, spurred by rumors of approaching armies, making his head hurt and his fingers tremble. Once, he had even had to drop a pilfered purse and run for his life, the shouts of the Guard in his ears, images of blood behind his eyes.
The shadows danced as torches wavered in a gust of wind from the opened door. A dozen armed men! No, their thoughts were peaceful enough. Thoughts of food and ale, of women and song.
Slypher sat up straighter, his ale momentarily forgotten. Behind the thoughts of ale and women ran the gleam and luster of gold, the glitter of jewels! There had always been rumors in The City, whispers of riches awaiting those brave enough, skillful enough, lucky enough to seize them. He listened, his pointed nose twitching avidly above his carefully waxed mustache.
"Drinks for my friends!" The spokesman for the band smote a rough hewn table with his massive fist. Clad in gleaming chain mail, he looked every inch the leader of men. "Ale, and be sure that it's your best!"
Borulph served them himself, waddling back and forth from behind the bar, his tray laden with mugs of ale from his own personal keg. Not the slop he'd served Slypher! He snatched up the coin that was thrown to him, biting it doubtfully before hurriedly tucking it away beneath his apron. Slypher again caught the luster of gold, this time from the innkeeper's slimy mind.
"What brings you here, good sirs?" Borulph wheezed, puzzled. These were not the kind of customers he was comfortable with; none of them looked to be thieves, bullies, broken men.
"Treasure!" The leader's booming laugh echoed from the tavern walls, mocking the suddenly fearful innkeeper as his mug was set down empty. The tavern was suddenly dead quiet for the space of two breaths, every ear caught by the magic word. "Treasure, and your good brown ale! No, Arcbant seeks not to rob your poor till. You need not think to summon the City Guard to protect the few coins in your hoard. The treasure we seek lies well beyond the walls of The City. We follow a rumor, the barest whisper of a dream, but this tale tells of riches beyond the scope of any man's dreams. By the Eighty One Deities of Orris Kayn, we seek riches indeed! One or two more companions added to our number, and in the morning we set forth..."
Slypher settled back on his bench with a sneer, raising his mug of ale to hide his expression. Treasure, indeed! Rumors were perpetually afloat in Pordigran, washing back and forth inside its walls like turds in a farmer's pond. Fighting men had always followed them, panting their lust for those imagined riches only to return from their quests with dulled weapons and empty pockets. If they returned at all.
Well, he at least hadn't seen any signs of sudden riches from these quests, and he of all men would have known. Last year the rumors had been of green sea pearls from along the shores of Orris Kayn, and the year before that...
"Ho, thief!" He looked up to see the leader, Arcbant, motioning to him. "Come on over here. Drink our host's good brown ale, and hear my tale."
His own mug was as empty as his pockets. Slypher shrugged his acquiescence and reluctantly crossed to Arcbant's table, his soft half boots making no sound on the littered floor. He perched on the end of a wooden bench, uncomfortably aware of being where unfriendly eyes could see his back.
"You have need of a Thief?" His voice would not have reached across the room even if it had been quiet in Borulph's tavern, it was never quiet in Borulph's tavern for long at a time, and Arcbant leaned forward to hear. "What would you have poor Slypher do, pick the locks of a dream?"
"It is no dream," Arcbant rumbled. "We have a map..."
"I have seen maps before," Slypher chuckled slyly. "Even drawn a few myself. 'Ancient Treasures Buried by Orc bands' and 'Remnants of a Forgotten Dragon's Hoard' have always been two of my favorites."
"Orc bands? Dragons? No, nothing of that sort." A fist closed on Slypher's wrist. The Thief tensed, but there was only an answering flash of humor, not malice in Arcbant's mind. "Listen to me. No buried treasure, but something far better. The map that I... found shows where a Darvish Sorcerer's tower once stood."
Slypher smiled appreciatively. The Darvish Empire lay millennia in the past, long before the appearance of the Orcish Invaders, a fabled time when magic had been the heritage of all men and the many regions of Orris Kayn were closely linked by swift couriers on magical steeds.
"And what leads you to believe that any of this fabled treasure still remains?"
"It may not," Arcbant admitted easily. "But even a scrap of the treasure that was Mardelant's would make all of us rich men a dozen times over."
"Mardelant?" Slypher drew back, made suddenly nervous by the certainty in the other's mind. "His lair? I've heard the old tales. Mardelant was no mere Sorcerer, but the last of a line that stretched back to the Priest Kings of the Klaamett Theocracy itself!"
"Mardelant is dead, his shade long departed. Has been, for two and a half millennia or more. No ghosts, no guardians left at his death could remain to guard his treasure after this long. Well? Are you with us?"
"What's your offer?" Slypher winced at his own rashness, regretting his words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but it was too late to call them back. Arcbant smiled down at him as though knowing just how he felt, but he held his own gaze steady under the big man's inquiring eyes.
"One hundred gold pieces now, against one quarter of a full share of the value of what we find. As leader, I get two shares, my companions one share each."
"Not enough." Slypher rose to his feet, no longer young, unimposing at only four and a half feet of bone and lean muscle. "My life is worth far more to me than that. A full share, and two hundred gold pieces."
"A quarter share is enough!" A swarthy mercenary whose hawk like features were twisted in a scowl spoke up from Arcbant's right. "We twelve are enough to take the treasure without the help of this sniveling Thief."
"Softly, Padnor. A Thief could well be useful, and this one comes well recommended." Arcbant's gaze flicked toward where Borulph lounged behind his bar, and Slypher spared a moment to think up a suitable revenge on the innkeeper for getting him into this. Something worse than dropping a rat's carcass into his cask of ale. That sort of trifle had never bothered the fat innkeeper in the past. "A half share, then. A half share, and one hundred gold pieces. No more."
Arcbant's resolve was as unyielding as a quenched sword blade, and Slypher reluctantly nodded. "A half share, then. Show me your gold, and the bargain is sealed."
The coins spilled from a bulging pouch out onto the table. Slypher scooped them up almost before they touched the scarred wood. This was no place to show off riches!
"Come along." Arcbant rose to his feet, followed by his men. "You'll bed down with us, this night. We can't have you muzzy with drink when we set out at first light. Too muzzy, perhaps, to even find our party before we leave."
Surrounded by younger, stronger men, he swallowed the protest that rose to his lips and went meekly with them out into the night. And it was a fine spring night, clear and still, with only the hint of a breeze to clear away the stench. The familiar night sounds of Pordigran echoed down empty streets, drunken laughter and a woman's screams a fitting counterpoint to the marching feet of City Guards.
The Rau Gate opened for travelers at the first light of dawn. Ahead and behind them caravans of wagons and pack beasts spilled out through the brazen portals, anxious for an early start on their way to the town of Raief, whose markets lay a full two days' travel from Pordigran at their slow, plodding pace.
"And just where is this treasure we seek?" Slypher crooked his neck to peer up at Arcbant. "How far do we have to walk before we reach our goal?"
"Not far, even on foot. We seek a hill called by the name of Kadath, where long ago the ancient nobility dwelt."
"I know the place. It has an evil name among the peasants." He shivered, pulling his cloak about his thin chest though the morning's chill was fast fading. The unaccustomed weight of the borrowed short sword at his belt only made him feel more uneasy, though he knew how to wield it well enough, and he darted quick glances at the greenery to either side of the road. "Nothing there for your efforts but a few scattered ruins, thoroughly plundered during the Times of Troubles. You did say something about having a map?"
"I did. You'll see it when the time is right."
They held to a steady pace, quickly drawing away from the caravans that kicked up dust behind them. The road was level, its ancient hexagonal stone blocks patched with pockets of crushed rock where uncounted centuries of wear and weather had taken their toll. For a short distance, walled estates had lined their path, but these soon dwindled to ragged farms until even they were replaced by tangled woods.
Finally, standing all by itself amidst diligently tilled fields, there loomed a well fortified monastery. With its many buildings and spired roofs enclosed within stout walls, it ranked as a village in its own right. Cowled figures, unheeding of mere passers by, tended herds and prepared fields for planting.
The sun was high in the sky when at last they left the road, pushing aside a screen of brush to follow a faint animal trail. There were few farms on this side of Pordigran, most such lying to the south and west of The Most Holy City along the river. Slypher had spent much of the morning studying his companions, using with some care the Talent that had kept him alive all the precarious years of his life. The thoughts around him were for the most part simple and straightforward, concerned with their bodies and their simple pleasures, the give and take of their rough fellowship.
He flinched aside from one mind among them. A mind icy cold and clear, its thoughts wandering down paths of arcane wisdom, disdaining common pleasures of the flesh. Slypher contrived to stay well away from the hooded Magician. Such a one might well discern his long held secret, his Talent for eavesdropping on the thoughts of others. He had no wish for notoriety, no stomach for the dangers such chancy fame would surely bring. The Most Holy City had too many secrets in the minds of its people for his particular Talent to be welcome. Too many men and women, rich and powerful, who would seek to use him. Use him, and then reward him with poison or knife or strangler's noose for the secrets he'd unearthed at their bidding.
The sun was warm, here on the hill called Kadath, the fresh green of newly budded leaves a startling contrast to the drab back alleys of Pordigran. They paused close to the crest of the hill, standing among ancient trees whose roots thrust deep into crevices between the stones of crumbled foundations.
Fragments of broken statues leered at them from behind veils of moss, and scummed pools in broken fountains drew clouds of insects. Through the gnarled trees, Pordigran was only a distant smudge of oily smoke against the clear blue of the sky.
"Over this way," Arcbant called. "North of the crest of the hill, down a ways from the top."
He studied a cracked and tattered parchment, rolling it out carefully on a tilted stone block. The trees were thicker here, twisted grotesquely by age and storm. A jumble of broken stone did indeed hint that a fallen tower might once have spilled down the rugged slope. They followed its traces back up the hillside, coming at last to where a broken foundation showed its jagged teeth.
"Move those stones. This place must have had cellars."
Slypher sweated along with the others, laboring in troubled silence under the ancient trees. Something was wrong with this place, something that defied explanation. He had been out of The City often enough, away from his alleys and bazaars, so it wasn't a simple fear of open spaces. This was something more...
"Here it is! We've found it!"
Strong arms and backs shifted massive stone blocks from their resting places, opening up a ragged hole in the side of the hill. Slypher sweated even more, his stomach twisting into a hard knot. This place was wrong, all wrong!
"All right. Form up!" Arcbant's command pulled the sweating men into a semblance of order. "No telling what's in there. Padnor, you and me in front. The rest of you know your places. Swords out and ready. Slypher, you keep to the rear."
He stumbled to obey. A sickness was churning in him, a pressure against his mind like nothing he had ever felt, and the only thing that kept him moving was the thought that he'd given his word to act as one of the party. He moved as though dazed, numbly gripping the flaming torch that was thrust into his hand.