When the party reached the edge of Harveston’s eastern district, they were approached by a young guard. He gave a quick salute before speaking.
“Madam Lauretta, missus Rashirel, you are needed down at the east district guard house as soon as possible. There’s been a development with that prisoner you dropped off a week or so back.”
“You mean the Syndicate bandit?” Ras asked.
“That’s the one, ma’am. He’s dead. Poisoned, we’re not quite sure how. Guards found his body in the dead of night, along with a note addressed to “The Frosty-Haired Whore and the Big Orc Wench.” We figured you two fit the description well enough, no offense meant, since you were the ones that dropped him off."
Ras and Lauretta exchanged glances. “Well what did the letter say?” Lauretta asked.
“Don’t know, ma’am,” the guard replied. “The captain was strict on none of us reading it. She said it was one of those things that might be attuned to a particular person and be dangerous for anyone else – magic can do some amazing and horrible things. Anyway, she figured we should wait a few days to see if you two turned up before giving the go ahead to read it ourselves.”
Ras and Lauretta exchanged glances again. “We should probably check this out,” Ras said, “it doesn’t sound like it’ll take that long.”
“But we just got back,” Lauretta replied, “and I have some stuff I’d like to look into myself first.” She adjusted her backpack which contained the dragon egg. “Why don’t Benny and I take the bags back to the inn and take care of our errands while you go with the guard. You can fill us in later.”
“Sure,” Ras said, handing her backpack over to the shaman. She turned to the guard. “Alright,” she said, “lead the way.”
“Right this way ma’am,” and the guard set off down the street at a brisk pace.
It only took a few minutes to get to the guard station. It was a short tower with a couple of arches at the top keeping watch over the city streets. Large double doors, capable of admitting a giant if need be, marked the entrance, though a smaller set of doors within the first were what admitted the trickle of guards walking about on their patrols. Ras was taken inside and up a narrow flight of stairs to an office on the second floor where she was introduced to Captain Farrow.
“Ma’am,” the captain said shaking Ras’ hand. “I trust Private Dink here filled you in?”
“A bit,” Ras replied. “Just that the bandit was poisoned and the assassin left a letter for me and my friend.”
“That’s everything,” the captain said moving around her desk to a table covered in lock-boxes and small safes. “You are dismissed, private. Get back to your patrols.”
“Captain,” said the guard who had led Ras to the station. He saluted and disappeared back down the hallway.
The captain opened a box, sifted through a pile of papers inside, selected one, and locked the box back. She handed the letter to Ras, the stepped back and leaned against her desk. The wood creaked under the weight of the woman and her heavy armor.
“We weren’t able to get much out of him,” the captain said, “before the assassins got to him. He kept referring to himself as Maul, though with gangs like the Syndicate you typically get a new name once you join. We brought in a few clerics and had a magically augmented interrogation, and though he was made incapable of lying we couldn’t get him to talk. I don’t think he knew much anyway. He seemed like a grunt. There’s this demeanor, you know?”
“Can’t say I do,” Ras replied, breaking the seal on the folded piece of paper. She began reading the letter, which was written in neat but scratchy handwirtting.
“It’s this false sense of bravado. They know they are just grunts, and so they fluff themselves up and try to appear important and powerful. Kind of like an angry rooster.”
As far as last words go those were not the best, but that was when the captain died.
“Ah, Benny, you’re back. Good.”
Lauretta, carrying the dragon egg in her magical bag, continued through the inn to the upstairs room. She was anxious to start work on getting the creature hatched – if it were even still alive – and didn’t want to deal with any distractions. Benny, however, headed over to the bar to see what the innkeeper needed.
“A lady dropped these off for you a few days back,” the keeper said, producing a modestly sized barrel and a folded up letter. “Attractive elf woman who said her name was Snook. I don’t ask questions, of course,” he continued at Benny’s quizzical look, “I know that’s bad for my health and my business. I know nothing more than what I just said. I’m curious, I mean who wouldn’t be, but I’m not stupid.”
The innkeeper pushed the barrel across the bar and went back to cleaning cups.
Snook, thought Benny, that’s no elven name. It’s more like goblin or ogran. Actually, wasn’t that the name of Brutus’ daughter?
Anxiety welled up in him, and he felt that he knew what would be in the barrel. He proceeded cautiously and gave the barrel and letter a twice-over before touching them. He wanted to make sure they weren’t trapped. There were no indications that they were – no shimmer from smeared contact poison, no nooks or crannies to conceal poison tipped needles, and no glyphs or symbols that seemed magical. He opened the barrel.
The stench hit him like a wave, a putrid, thick, cloying wave. A swarm of flies left the barrel, and maggots squirmed inside – the squishing of their plump, white bodies audible behind the buzzing of their freed parents. There were three heads in the barrel, two ogres and one human. The flesh was swollen and fetid, and showed chew marks from fangs and incisors as well as the feasting of the maggots. Despite the grotesqueness of the faces, eyeless, lipless, bones showing through, Benny recognized all three of them.
It was Brutus, Grosnob, and Bilrod, the three members of the Syndicate that he knew by name. They were the only three he had met and not killed, and the only three that had not wanted him dead.
As the flies scattered across the inn’s common room, followed quickly by the smell of rotted meat, food was pushed aside, cups placed down, and chairs pushed back as people began to scramble for the door. Several were gagging, and at least one lost their lunch on the floor. The innkeeper had dropped the cup he was cleaning, the glass scattered around his feet, his eyes wide and staring at Benny and at the letter he hadn’t opened yet.
Slowly, Benny cut the seal of the letter and unfolded the paper. He gave it a cursory glance, but saw nothing suspicious or magical. Then he read it. The penmanship was scratchy and angry, the author attempting to convey all of their rage in each stroke of the quill.
Run while you can, but the shadows pursue.
Run while you can, but we will run you through.
Run while you can, and take shelter and pray.
Run while you can, but you won’t get away.
Then there was a flash of light, a thundering wall of force, and pain washed through Benny’s body as it flew across the room and slammed into a wall.
When he regained consciousness, Lauretta was standing over him. She had an empty bottle in her hand, and there were several more on the ground. She look relieved as she tossed the glass aside and handed Benny another potion. He reached out for it and felt the flesh of his arm slide against his clothes which were still hot and smoking slightly. He felt charred flesh crack, blisters pop, and blood seeping from his body. He quaffed the potion, the cool liquid flooding through his body and healing the more grievous wounds. Then he forced himself to his feet, his entire body still burning and stiff, and took a look around.
There had been an explosion, and most of the lower part of the inn was charred black and ruined. Tables and chairs had been blasted against the walls, the bar was little more than splinters. All of the alcohol was gone, glass scattered around the room, embedded in the wood walls and furniture. Several people had been caught in the blast, the smell of charred bodies was thick, along with the smoke of burnt plaster and still smoldering wood. Frost and ice covered parts of the room where Lauretta had used her magically cold breath to dowse the flames before they spread to the rest of the building.
Benny shook his head and staggered across the room. The innkeeper, most of him, lay at the wall near the doorway, face burnt down to the bone, mouth agape at what had befallen his beloved bar. Benny continued out the door.
People were running through the streets, some wanting to help and others wanting to watch. Lauretta came out of the building behind him carrying all their supplies, and she took Benny’s hand steering him away from the excitement. They weren’t going to be any help here, and they now needed a new place to stay.
When Ras caught up with them, she was looking only slightly better than Benny. Her clothes were burnt and covered in soot, her hair singed and uneven, and her skin had the faint discoloration of freshly healed wounds. The group had found rooms to let at The Underbite, an inn run by an ogre with prominent tusks, and shortly after filling each other in on the events of the past few hours decided that the Syndicate had to be destroyed.
“Before I left,” Ras said to the group, “after the guards had healed me up enough to walk, but before I left, I heard them talking about taking the Syndicate more seriously. It seems that people had been talking about them for a few months now, but the guards hadn’t mustered up the manpower to do a real investigation. I bet this will be the kick to the face they need.”
“We don’t know that it was the Syndicate,” Benny countered from his seat on the bed. They’d gathered in his room. “I mean, we know. It’s pretty obvious. But the guards don’t know, and we can’t prove anything. They might take our word for it, but in their eyes this might as well have been just some botched assassination from someone in our past – a disgruntled employer, old enemy, what-have-you. We are just mercenaries, as far as they are concerned.”
“But that bandit Lauretta and I brought in was killed recently, in his jail cell, and the note that exploded in my face was left by the assassin. That’s a pretty strong connection to me.”
“Maybe,” Benny conceded, “and I suppose there’s no harm in asking. Thorn and I know where they were camped, one of the bandits had led us right up to the doorstep before we got to Harveston, the poor fool.”
“Where is Thorn, by the way?” Lauretta asked. “I didn’t even think to look for him when we left the Bee and Barb. He might have had a note waiting for him too.”
The three of them headed out in search. There hadn’t been a third explossion in town – just the ones at the inn and guard house. So the party hung out around the smoking ruins of the Bee and Barb in the crowd that had gathered to gawk and gossip, hoping that Thorn would turn up. As the sun went down and the crowd dispersed, there was no sign of Thorn. As the party was discussing where to look next, Freckle showed up.
The owl swooped out of the sky, landing on the ground near Benny, hooting loudly and flapping its wings. It bit at Benny’s cloak, flapping its wings and attempting to tug him along, so the party followed the bird. It led them to an abandoned building in the north district of Harveston, the poorest section of town that was mostly slums. Benny pried open a window and snuck inside, keeping a sharp lookout for anything that might scream trap.
Thorn stood in the middle of the building, frozen in place as if paralyzed. Benny made his way over to the half-elf, and noticing the parchment clutched in his hands realized what had happened. The half-elf had been struck by a sepia snake, a magical trap much like the exploding runes that had nearly killed Ras and himself. The snake was a potent paralysis that could last for days, but was otherwise harmless. It usually ended with a slit throat or a stab to the heart. The fact that Thorn had neither was suspicious.
That’s when Benny noticed the note left on a nearby table, and the jet-black feather on top of it. He picked the paper up and, without even glancing at it, put it in his pocket. Then he grabbed Thorn and carted him over to and out of the window.
There was a guard in the street talking with Ras and Lauretta, either concerned with them loitering around an abandoned building late at night or wanting to hear them talk about the explosions from earlier in the day. Seeing Benny pulling along the paralyzed half-elf, the guard lent an armor-clad hand.
“What happened to him?” he asked, and was answered by having a piece of paper shoved into his hands. Benny carried Thorn away from the guard as quickly as he could. As the guard uncrumpled the parchment and read, the others flinched and prepared to dodge.
“Count yourself lucky that I took the job, and not one of the other, lesser, assassins. You should be honored, really, to have been my targets. I don’t murder the innocent, and I don’t harbor any love for the Syndicate that paid for delivery of this message. Lick your wounds and then bite back, and bite hard.”
“Hm,” the guard said, folding the paper and handing it back to Benny, who had managed to get a dozen feet away, “seems that someone hates you, and someone else has mixed feelings.”
“Yeah,” said Benny, taking the letter. “We had some run-ins with the Syndicate a week or so back. A couple run-ins, actually. And after this, we were thinking about having a couple more.”
“Good luck,” replied the guard. “They are smoke and mirrors, rumor and story. We’ve been hearing about them a lot more these last few months, but there’s nothing that pins down what they are planning or where they are hiding, otherwise the city would have done something.”
“We don’t know what they are planning,” Ras said, “but Benny and Thorn here know where their camp is.”
It took a bit to convince the guard, but once he was on board he admitted that the guards had been planning to send a few patrols out into the countryside to see about tracking down the camp. If the group already knew where it was, then the city could just go straight in to route them. It would be a couple of days before the guards were ready to go, but they would stop by the inn where the party was staying before they left.
The party, meanwhile, carted Thorn back to the inn and while waiting for the magic to wear off set out to solve the magic on the dragon egg, and while they were at it they looked into the enchantments on the altar-cup they’d found.