Excerpt: A Good Deed (Pt. III)

*** Author’s Note: Part I of this excerpt can be found here; Part II can be found here.

Sepultur’a stands in the darkness, letting her eyes adjust to the dimly-lit tomb. She had made it to the ziggurat as the sun was setting and had to fight her way through a small patrol of lamia. The snake-women were thick in this little-traveled area of the lizard-folk swamps, as were all other forms of reptile and amphibian life. From tiny, brilliantly-hued and highly-toxic frogs, to the massive lightning-spewers, to the snakes of all sizes resting in trees or slithering through the muck.

Water trickles down the walls as she descends the mossy stone steps. Vines hang from the ceiling and trail along the walls, and luminescent fungi glow softly in the darkest corners of the tunnel. She sniffs the air with her highly sensitive nose. The dank, damp air is slightly musty, but there is enough of a draw of air from some unseen, long-unused ventilation system to keep it from being completely toxic. Down below, a flickering light indicates a fire of some sort. The scent of smoke is strong, but not chokingly so. Sepultur’a descends the steps and follows the tunnel until she comes to a bend. Using her sword would be difficult in these close quarters and drawing it would cause unnecessary noise, so she readies her staff before peeking around the bend.

The tunnel appears to widen about twenty feet ahead. Off to the right side of this area a small fire is burning in a sloppily-made pit, and a lone form is sprawled on a pile of furs and straw nearby. Sepultur’a crouches low and moves forward slowly, eyes on the still form. She sees that it is an Orc female: most likely Baghzragh, the one who had stolen from Canthiorn and betrayed Grushtakh. As she gets closer to the area, she hears a soft murmur of voices coming from the left and she stops to listen. Her hearing is now as keen as her nose and she gleans an important, and unexpected, bit of information. A smile crosses her lips and she stands, glad to have worn the subtle badge which fastens her cloak. She has taken to following her instincts more than she used to, after her experience with the Withered Hand and her subsequent rescue and healing. She had put the badge on after leaving Grushtakh and felt far enough away from the city to bear the particular mark safely; wearing it, now, she knew there would be no need for subterfuge or bloodshed.

“Yuh t’ink the wench’ll wake soon? If she be wantin’ more o’ the sweet, she’ll be havin’ to pay up, first!” Coarse, loud laughter follows this statement. The speaker, a tall man with a scarred face and bald head who currently goes by the name of Rokkagan, stands from where he and two others have been drinking and playing cards. He walks over to the unconscious figure on the fur-and-straw bedding, nudging her with the toe of his boot, then folds his arms and shakes his head in mock disappointment. “She’s a mite surly, but sure knows how to cut loose and have a bit o’ fun when…persuaded!” He laughs again, turning back to his mates, and stops short when he sees an unknown figure standing in the entryway to the space. His drinking-companions, a lizard-man named Gore-Scales and a Breton named William Sterone, are kneeling in submission with the fists of their right hands firmly pressed on their chests in a salute, while their left hands are raised with palms out. Their heads are bowed as low as possible in deference to the one who outranks them all; her silent appearance, combined with the badge and sign she flashed at them, had kept them from warning their erstwhile employer.

“Well, well, well…fancy meeting you here,” the unknown person says in a sultry and undeniably feminine voice. She walks over to where Gore-Scales and William still kneel, lightly touching the fingertips on their raised hands with hers and bidding them to their feet. They both stand and then flank her, facing their Rokkagan with crossed arms. He stands stock-still, frozen with an apprehension that he hasn’t felt since leaving his burning home in the dead of night many moons ago. The woman walks towards him, then past him, kneeling near Baghzragh’s lightly snoring form. “I have no dealings with you at the moment, Rokkagan,” the woman says as she rummages through a backpack that has been tossed into the corner and forgotten about by the spelunkers during their drug-fueled debauchery. “This one has some items which don’t belong to her, and I’m returning those items to their proper owners.” She locates a secreted sheaf of papers in a cleverly-sewn pocket of the backpack, skims them quickly and then tucks them into a secure pouch in the folds of her cloak. Standing, she turns to face Rokkagan. Gore-Scale and William are right behind him, waiting for any type of signal from her. “You have nothing to fear from me, unless you don’t pay these fine folk their due,” she continues, staring intently into Rokkagan’s eyes. “Times are hard, indeed, if my good acquaintances need to sell their talents to the likes of you!” she exclaims, looking him up and down, disgust evident in her voice. Rokkagan merely nods stupidly, not daring to say or do anything that might provoke the woman.

She steps closer, hands laced casually behind her back, raising her still-concealed face to his. Her voice drops to a near-whisper. “If I hear that you have shortened them even one penny of coin, I will hunt you down and take the remainder out on your worthless hide.” She smirks with satisfaction at the acrid smell of his bladder letting go. Stepping back, she signals to Gore-Scale and William that they can stand at ease. She shoulders past Rokkagan, exiting with a parting shot: “Oh…you might want to change your breeches before re-entering civilized society. Even the worst ogre-dens I’ve had to crawl through smelled better than your arse does now!” Her derisive laughter echoes down the tunnel. Rokkagan squeezes his eyes shut, trying not to let the humiliation of soiling himself overcome him. William goes to tend the fire while Gore-Scale eyes Rokkagan, appraising him anew. He thinks that a re-negotiation of their contract might be in order, and a small memory-gem secreted on one of his horn-rings would assist with that.

Grushtakh is being violently shaken awake from a sound sleep. “Hey…hey, wake up! Damn your drunken hide…wake up, I say!” Canthiorn’s beaming face comes into view as Grushtak’s vision clears. “Uh…wha’?” he grunts, his head swimming as he tries to sit up, weaving slightly as he props himself up on one elbow. “Wash goin’ on?” he mumbles, wiping bleary eyes and smacking his lips. His mouth tastes as if he’d fallen asleep with it open behind a mammoth with a serious bowel problem. What the hell sort of drink had that Wood-elf conned him into swallowing? Canthiorn shoves some papers in Grushtakh’s face, cackling gleefully. “We’re in business! Gods and goddesses above and below, she did it…we’re in business!” he exclaims, doing the stomp-and-clap dance steps native to his people, waving the papers about. Grushtakh rubs his head and blinks stupidly. “Huh?” he asks again, sitting up in the bed a bit more. The last thing he remembers involved a drinking game between himself, Canthiorn, and a cat-man with pale, striped fur. He grunts softly as his head throbs. “Talk slower…what’re you going on about?” Canthiorn capers around the room, still waving the papers. “Your friend, you thick fool! The one you told me about, remember?” Canthiorn rolls his eyes. “Never mind that, for now…all I can say is, things are turning around for the better – we’re back in business!”

A week later, late in the afternoon, a falcon drops out of the sky over Sepultur’a as she stands on the upper balcony of a lone tavern on the edge of the battle-torn central province. It lands on a rail and settles itself with a fluffing of feathers, panting with exertion. It has flown fast and far with its precious cargo. She feeds it some meat that she had been snacking on and carefully removes the tubular parchment-case from its back. Opening it, she finds a rolled piece of paper and a large key. She unrolls the parchment and reads:

Greetings – I hope this note finds you well and in good health. I don’t know if there is any way to fully and adequately compensate you for the work that you did. You gave me back my livelihood and my reputation, and that is no small feat. Please accept this as a token of my thanks, and know that if there is ever any service that I can provide, you have only to name it. Enclosed are a map and a key. The key will unlock the treasure which this map leads to. It is the least that I can do for your kind gesture. May the gods and goddesses ever watch over your steps, milady.

Cordially and Respectfully,
Canthiorn

Sepultur’a looks at the map on the reverse side of the letter. She is somewhat familiar with the area indicated on it, and sees that the ‘X’ marking the spot isn’t far from a trading outpost deep in the territory of the cat-folk. She notes that one of the crudely-sketched landmarks on the map, as she peers a bit closer with the help of a magnifying crystal, indicates a shrine of transit. Very convenient! She tucks the key and the letter / map in the folds of her cloak to keep them safe for this quick jaunt.

The falcon looks at her expectantly, letting out a high-pitched scree. She chuckles and tosses it the last scrap of meat, re-attaches the scroll-case, then stretches and jumps lightly down from the balcony. The bird takes to the air and settles in a tall tree near the outpost’s main gate. She puts her fingers in her mouth and whistles sharply. Her newest mount, a sleek black panther, stretches languorously from his nap in the shade of the stilted building and pads over to his mistress, emitting a purring, grumbling growl. “I know, pet, I know…I promised that you would get a good, long rest, but we need to head out one more time.” She scratches him lightly under his chin, adjusts the riding-straps and thin, flexible saddle and then climbs on his back. He launches into a loping run with Sepultur’a guiding him with even more subtle body movements than needed on a horse. Within an hour they have reached an out-of-the-way transit shrine and use it to travel to the one she is certain is marked on the map.

She looks around as her vision clears from the magically-assisted teleportation. She only uses these “way-shrines” when time is of the essence, but doesn’t feel the disorienting effects as strongly as she used to. The shrine is right in the center of the trading outpost, circled by the merchant-wagons and stalls. A tavern and inn are located in one building while the guild-hall of mages shares space with the guild-hall of warriors. It has been just over a year since she had last travelled through this area; she had been with the caravan of entertainers and traders, then.

Dismounting, she leads the panther past some of the stalls, exchanging greetings, hugs, and mild pleasantries with some of the merchants whom she recognizes. As she wanders about, she notices a neatly-paved side-road which seems to have been freshly laid. She pulls out the letter and skims the map again, noting that this side-road appears to lead directly to the ‘X’ marking the mysterious treasure. Odd to bury a treasure at the end of a road, she thinks, but shrugs and follows it. She is formidable enough on her own; her mount ensures that only the incredibly foolish would dare to attack.

The road winds gently upward through some trees and ends at a locked door which is set into a stout, stone wall. The wall has an open space guarded with sturdy metal lattice-work, so Sepultur’a moves to this space and peers through, gasping softly at the sight on the other side…

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