Understudies: Take the Money and Run

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Epic Tavern's Beorian Tales

An investigation into mysterious messages advertising a hard-to-find Savings Bank leads to a corrupt dwarf seeking to have Tasuil Beor under his thumb, a mage-ineer of major mechanical ingenuity, a child slave network, and the rebirth of a former house of ill repute into a place of refuge and learning. Join Epic Tavern's Understudies on their dramatic debut!

Beorian Tales-6

Understudies:Take the Money and Run

Act 1, Scene 1: The Green Room, Valridge

The eight members of the newly formed group The Understudies – a motley crew if there ever was one – met after moonrise in their HQ, aptly named The Green Room.  It was a sumptuous meeting room, complete with dining table, comfortable couches that could double as beds if necessary, and an enchanted decanter that would always pour the best drink you ever had – literally.

They seated themselves quickly, full of anxiety and not just a little excitement. Seated at the table’s head was Algebria Mentos (Miss Mentos to you) who had proclaimed herself their ‘Stage Manager’ – which meant that for the moment, she was completely in charge.  Periwinkle Johnson (or Mr. Perry) was their actual leader, and the mysterious gypsy orc called Granny Ginny was…let’s just say she’s Mr. Perry’s associate.  Both of them were absent.

“I’m going to separate you into two groups:  Group One will consist of Sarah, Amy, Fafhrd and Talisa.  The second will consist of Jack, Memnos, and Dave,” said Miss Mentos, “and before you three even ask, you’ll be joined at some point by Granny Ginny.  I’ll brief each group separately, so Group Two please wait upstairs in the bar.  Young Ravinger has been told that you’re to be given one drink, on PANACEA’s tab, and one drink only.  All of you will need to keep your minds and bodies sharp for these missions.”

Jack the Dhampir rose first, followed by Dave and Memnos, who had changed back into his disguise as Kwan Dooley, seller of rat ‘kwee-zeen.’  After each wished Sarah and her group good luck, they went out the door that led to the storeroom of The Old Priest and Rat Tavern.  “I don’t know about you,” said Fafhrd, “but that Supplejack guy makes me nervous.”

Sarah, who didn’t tolerate prejudice of any kind, was about to come to her friend’s defense when Amy Omore Earthsoul laughed.

“He can’t turn you, you know,” she said, reaching her hand up to pat him on his massive shoulder.

The Gladiator turned several shades of red.

“Ah, I meant...” he began.

“He’s not undead.  He’s alive, and carries the virus, but he can’t pass it to you.  He can drink your blood, but he can’t drain you.  Too much blood and he’ll become violently ill.  You have nothing to worry about,” stated the druid.

“Ahem,” interrupted Miss Mentos, “Over the past several months, adventurers have been seeing many hawks flying overhead, following roads and well-travelled paths.  Several times one of the adventuring party manages to get a hawk to land on their arm – usually resulting in the loss of a small chunk of flesh.  All the hawks carry a message tube.”

“Secret Communications?” asked Fafhrd.

“I’m getting to that,” said Miss Mentos crisply. “None of them has been able to successfully obtain the message before the hawk flies away. Until yesterday.  Here is what the message looks like,” she said as she handed the paper to Sarah, “and it is most definitely not a secret communication.”

Sarah looked at the paper, which contained the following commercial advertisement:

First Dwarven Savings Bank

We don’t just keep your gold safe –

We make you more of it!

Nobody knows gold better than dwarves!

Invest your savings with us and watch it double in under a year!

No minimum deposit – no withdrawal penalty!

Bring this flyer with you and we’ll waive the annual fee!

The first 20 customers get a free thundermug!

Visit our Main Branch in Tasuil Beor’s financial district


“This is disturbing,” said Talisa, “And not just because the Reformed Goblin Faction would be furious. I’ve never even heard of them.”

“Tasuil Beor has a Financial ‘district’ – since when?” asked Amy.

Sarah answered: “It isn’t a district, it’s more like three buildings: The Miner’s Guild, the Bank of Beor, and Explorers’ Insurance & Exciting Investment Opportunities.”

“The real problem,” said Miss Mentos, “Is that the ‘main branch’ the flyer speaks of is nowhere to be found.  I’ve asked several agents to see if they could find it, but they’ve had no luck.  It seems that – if our research is correct – they have managed to steal a rather astonishing amount of gold.  Your mission is this: Find, Investigate and Close the FDSB; bring whoever is behind it to justice; and return the money to its investors.”

“Whoa,” commented Sarah, “Not asking much on a first assignment, are you?”

“Wait a minute,” said Fafhrd with a growing excitement, “Did the agents have the flyer with them when they were searching?”

“Why, no,” replied Miss Mentos.

“Could you hand that to Amy?”  Fafhrd waited while the flyer changed hands.  “Amy, can you sense anything magical about the flyer?”

The druid turned the paper every which way.  “Not really.  But there is a very faint whiff of animal urine…I doubt any of you could detect it.”  Fafhrd looked at her, puzzled.  “It’s a dwarf thing!” she told them.

“So, we’ll need the flyer to find the branch!” Sarah stated.

“Looks that way,” said Talisa, who stared at Fafhrd with newfound respect. “You’ve either got good instincts, or good luck.”

“Thanks.  I’m a simple man.  I figured whoever would go looking for this bank would want to save money, and if bringing the flyer meant they’d not have to pay the annual fee…”

“…they would have the flyer with them.  That’s excellent deductive reasoning, Mr. DeVenn.”  Algebria Mentos beamed.  “I suggest you all go get a good night’s rest.  Meet at the Miner’s Guild tomorrow just after sunrise.  Discuss things amongst yourselves before any of you do anything.  You’re a team, remember.  Use each other’s strengths.”

“Dibs on the Thundermug,” said Fafhrd, “Because they’re really cool.”

As they turned to depart, Algebria said, “Sarah, if you’d stay for a moment, there is something I’d like to discuss with you.”

When the others had left, she motioned Sarah to sit on one of the couches.  The performer/fire mage-in-training seemed a bit nervous, straightening her clothes and idly fooling with a strand of her hair.

“Calm down, you’ve nothing to worry about.  I have something to tell you, and you can accept the challenge or decline it, with no bad consequences.  It’s totally up to you.  Mr. Perry informed me that our Founder has taken an interest in you.  He has a keen sense of foresight and has told Mr. Perry that the Understudies stand a greater chance of success if you are in charge of their performances while in the field – which means assigning tasks, making daily decisions on how to proceed with the mission, and so forth.”

Sarah looked unflustered, so Miss Mentos continued.

“We’ve split the group this time to make it easier for you to try out your skills in leadership with fewer people and variables to work with at the beginning.  Are you willing to give it a try?”

Act 1, Scene 2: Miners’ Guild, Tasuil Beor ‘Financial District’

Sarah hadn’t known how to take yesterday’s revelation.  When she’d asked Miss Mentos about the mysterious Founder, she was told that she’d never met the man (the Founder was male), that he was older (aged), had connections all over Beor (powerful yet operated behind-the-scenes) and that he had, admittedly, been watching Sarah for what, Miss Mentos said, had been ‘a long time’ (okay, that was creepy – possibly a fan, possibly a pervert or both.)

She’d played intelligent female roles before, but she hadn’t considered her own mental faculties to be above average.  She’d decided to accept the offer, because you never, ever burnt a bridge in the performing arts – not if it could be avoided.  And she’d learned that the best directors were the ones who saw potential where performers didn’t – you had to trust yourself to be up to the task they set you.  So, she’d gotten up before sunrise, and walked from her modest rented room in Millston to the Old Priest & Rat Tavern, where she stood in line at the Leftover Lair and snagged a mug of koppee and one of the last mystery pies.  Today’s were sweet, with a slight tang to them.

She introduced herself to the gruff-looking attendant, whose name was Yeedia Garten.  On a whim, she asked if she knew anything about the First Dwarven Savings Bank.  Turns out Yeedia had overheard some customers talking about how nice the employees were, and that they had urged her to put her savings there.

“You couldna get me ta part wi’ me savings even iffen I ‘ad any!” she cackled.

Sarah gave her back the mug, thanked her for the info, and walked down the main road with a travelling vegetable vendor, a rather sweet old woman named Elryssa, until they’d come to Tasuil Beor.  The sun had just risen when she found herself at the beginning of Golden Avenue, where stood the Miner’s Guild.  And waiting there already were Talisa Del Kellov and Fafhrd DeVenn.  She’d no sooner joined them when Amy Omore Earthsoul came out of the Miner’s Guild, which was always open.

“Well, that’s an odd thing, and no doubt about it!” said the dwarven druid.

“Good morning, and what are you talking about?” asked Sarah.

“I asked her if she knew anyone who worked there, and if she did, would she ask them about the First Dwarven Savings Bank,” replied Talisa.  Today she was wearing ordinary street clothes, and although they were obviously well-worn, they were -  again – immaculate.  Sarah made a mental note that Talisa was meticulous, and quick to seize an opportunity when it presented itself.

“I know many Guild members, some friends and some family.  Most importantly I know the receptionist, Hannah Stonefist.  She’d said she’d heard of it, but that since members are obligated to do their banking at the Bank of Beor, no one would willingly admit to talk about it or its whereabouts, even if they had done a little business there.”  Amy paused, waiting for someone to respond.

“But…” prompted Sarah.

“It seems that, the first few weeks after those flyers had started appearing, the Guild had a visit from a rather peculiar-looking dwarf.”

“All dwarfs look peculiar…” started Talisa.

“HEY!” protested Fafhrd.

“Let me finish, human,” said Talisa, “As I was saying, all dwarfs look peculiar to an orc.”

“True enough,” said Amy, “but..”

“Apologize to her, Talisa,” said Sarah. “Now.”

The Orc diplomat and swordswoman stiffened and said, “I am sorry, Amy, that most orcs view dwarves as peculiar. I, however” she said, looking pointedly at Sarah, “was assistant to the Dwarven Ambassador to Beor, and have never held that view.”  Sarah made another mental note: snap judgements can often be wrong.  If I’m to lead them, she realized, I should get to know them better before jumping to conclusions.  I need to spend time with each one of them.

“Point taken, Talisa.  Amy, what did your friend say about this dwarf?” she asked.

“He was short, even for a dwarf.  He wore a vest with many pockets, full of odd-looking stuff.  He had a head of red curly hair and wore a strange necklace.  He told my friend he wanted to speak to Jasper Gemfinder, the current Guildmaster, about the Guild’s contract with the Bank of Beor.  He said he represented the FDSB.  They met for only a few minutes, when the peculiar dwarf stormed out of the building, shouting the most awful, vulgar things.”  Amy opened a flask and took a swig of water.

“I don’t believe you’ve told us his name,” said Talisa.

“My friend said he didn’t give it,” replied Amy, “and he ignored her when she asked him for it.”

The four stood quietly for a moment, trying to process Amy’s information.  Sarah was the first to speak.

“So – what do we know?  Flyers are being distributed to people on the road by hawks. The bank’s location is unknown.  However, the flyer says it is here, in the ‘financial district.’  The Miner’s Guild will not do business with them and forbids its members to do business with them.  However, many others have given their money to FDSB.  A peculiar-looking dwarf visited the Guild on FDSB’s behalf, so he is associated with them.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Talisa.

Sarah thought for a moment. “Whoever is behind this does not want to be found.  They target people with the flyers, which bring them here.  And then they go to the FDSB.  True?”

“So far,” agreed Fafhrd, and Amy seconded his comment.  Talisa nodded.

“I think if all four of us try to find the FDSB, we may scare off whoever is behind this.  I’d like us to split up.  Talisa, if you’d stay with me, I think the two of us can handle our roles as potential investors.”

“I know what I can do!” offered Amy.  Inwardly, Sarah was relieved, because she had no idea what to have Amy or Fafhrd do.  The druid continued, “I can ask around the falconers here in Tasuil Beor to find out if they know of any dwarves using trained hawks recently.”

“An’ I can ask the street kids if they’ve seen any peculiar-looking dwarves with red hair lurking around the backstreets,” stated Fafhrd.

Talisa said, “I’m not worried about the Gladiator, should trouble find him.  Can you defend yourself, Amy?”

The hand axe was in the druid’s hand before the orc had said her name. “Impressive!” said the orc admiringly.  “One day, I’d like to meet your instructor, if he or she is still alive.  That was expertly, and noiselessly, done!”

“I think that can be arranged,” said Amy with a wink. “Where should we meet up when we’re done?”

“I know,” said Sarah, “Let’s meet at Blodwin’s Bloomers.”

 Act 2, Scene1: Hunters’ Guild, Quarry’s End Bar, Tasuil Beor 

Amy sat at a table for two.  Across from her sat Prescot Koda, head of the Hunters’ Guild Companion Animals division.  She’d known him for several years, helping him with the training of some of the more exotic animals that had been recently certified as companions.

“Sure you don’t want to come work for me?” he asked her for the third time.

“Yes, Scot, I am. I’m working for myself these days, and I’m a good boss if you don’t mind my saying so!” And they both laughed.

“What brings you here today?” asked Prescot, downing his stein of ale in one gulp.  He was a big human, with a big appetite, big mouth, big belly and a big heart.  They’d hit it off in an equally big way when they first met, but work and circumstances had pulled them apart.  “Come to reignite the flame, hm?”

“Afraid not, Scot.  I am looking for a dwarf – red hair, short, a little odd, who maybe has asked for the use of several messenger hawks over the last few months.  He’d use them pretty regularly, I’d say.”

Prescot stroked his neatly clipped beard, full but tapered to a blond point at his chin. “No, can’t say that I’ve had such a request.  You’re welcome to go to the Guild Mews and talk to the hawkers there.”  They both stood up and clasped each other at the elbows.

“Don’t be a stranger.  I miss our get togethers, little cub.” Prescot winked.

“As do I.  But what would your wife say?” said Amy.

“I don’t know, she doesn’t talk to me much these days!”

“And why is that, I wonder?”

“Probably ‘cause I don’t listen when she does!”

They laughed, and the druid went to visit the Mews.

Act 2, Scene 2: Winding Way, aka Orphan Alley, Tasuil Beor

As soon as she rounded the corner, Frannie Dusa knew she’d made a mistake.  She should have gone left instead of right, because left was the shortcut to Market Square and she could have gotten lost in the crowd.  Now, she was deeper down into the guts of the alley, and she didn’t know it as well as she’d like.

She saw a bunch of discarded crates, and dashed under one, being careful not to let go of the crackleberry pastry she’d pinched from someone’s basket.  She’d been spotted by three of the Prowler gang, older boys who were hired to catch runaways and orphans like her.  She wasn’t going to get caught again, that was for sure – she’d kill herself first.  She scarfed down the pastry and wished she’d thought to pinch something to drink.  Then she heard the Prowlers, and her heart sank.  Gods above, she thought, I just need someone to help me.

“I seen ‘er go in ‘ere, Ratface.  I knows I did,” said one.

“Youse kin ‘ave fun wi’ ‘er, yessir, Ratface.”

“Shut yer yobs!” said a deep voice, probably Ratface, thought Frannie. “I needs ta ‘ear iffen she’s breathin’.”

“Cain’t youse smell ‘er, boss?” said one.

“Wi’ you two shitbags in tow? Hah!” laughed Ratface.

“HEY, RATFACE!”  This was a new voice, realized Frannie – older, deeper, and with more authority in it than she’d ever heard, even from the magistrate who’d let her be sold into servitude.  She risked peeking out of the crate, where one of the wooden slats had broken loose.  What she saw surprised her.

He stood about six and a half feet tall, with big broad shoulders and a mass of thick, wavy black hair.  His clean street clothes bulged with muscles, and he carried a giant broadsword.  Each foot was easily the size of her head.  As she watched, the sun came out from the clouds and surrounded him in a pool of dazzling light, which also filled the alley.

The three boys suddenly looked scared, and a little bit ashamed.  They made their way to the man and looked up at him.  The tallest one - Ratface guessed Frannie - said, “Hello, Mr. DeVenn, sir.  We wuzn’t doin’ nuttin’.”

“Don’t lie to me, kid.  I don’t deserve your lies.  I watched you and your boys chase that starving girl.  You’re Prowlers, aren’t you?  Lowest of the low, turning in your own kind just to make a gold piece.  I spared you from them, taught you how to survive on the up and up, and this is how you repay me?  Leave town and find honest work.  I’m putting the word out on you.  Now go!”

Ratface began to cry, and the man said, “I don’t remember you being a crybaby then, and I don’t want to start remembering you as such now.  Own up to your mistakes and leave like an adult.  Come back when you’ve made a good name for yourself.” Frannie watched the boys leave, until it was just the man standing there.  He walked over to where she was hiding and held out his hand to her.

“It’s alright.  I won’t hurt you.  I think maybe you could help me, because meetings like this don’t happen by chance.  My name’s Fafhrd, but you can call me Faff,” he said, smiling.  After she’d taken his hand, he looked at her and said, “Or you can call me big brother, if you like.  I know I’d like that.”

Act 2, Scene 3: Golden Avenue and FDSB, Tasuil Beor

As soon at the others left, Sarah took Talisa to Big Boulevard, and visited Toms-Whatnot Clothiers.  She picked out which clothes would best suit them as adventurers.  She had discussed the selection with the diplomatic assistant, telling Talisa that since the flyers were evidently targeting adventurers, it would be best if they looked the part.

Talisa decided she’d dress as a diplomat, choosing a smart three-piece ensemble in deep green and brown that was similar to what her former boss would wear.  Sarah chose to be a Bard and had opted for a more florid getup with a wide-brimmed, feathered hat to top it off.  Her instrument was a lyre.  She’d had a fling or two with bards, and one had taught her a few simple songs on the lyre – just basic chords and a note or two for emphasis.  She told the Costumier, whom she knew well, to send the rental bill to Periwinkle Johnson at the tavern.  His eyebrows shot skyward, and he bowed to her with a deference he usually reserved for producers.

They returned to Golden Avenue, where they walked for a good while.  Talisa would wave the flyer in the air, and Sarah had scored a few coins from singing on the steps of the Bank of Beor, winking at the guard who’d inch close whenever her fingers would strum a sour chord, and then ease back after she’d regained the tune.  They noticed one or two others holding a flyer as well, but after waiting a while, they’d left.

They were trying to figure out a better way to achieve their goal when they heard a gruff ‘ahem’ from across the street.  Standing uncomfortably in a slender crack between the Bank of Beor and the E.I.E.I.O. building was a plump dwarf, his nose sniffing the air, shirt buttons straining against his stomach.  His designer shoes were polished to a very high gloss, and what would have been normally untamable black dwarven hair had been slicked back with what looked like pomade but was probably closer to glue.  He wore a monocle in one eye, and a strange round bauble hung from a chain on his vest.

“Ah,” he said, in a voice slightly higher than normal for a rotund dwarf, “You have our flyer!  Excellent!” And with that he somehow turned around – though not without a few grunts – and walked into the disturbingly thin alley.

“He’s kidding, right?” said Sarah. “The FDSB is through there?”

The dwarf’s voice could be heard shouting, “Come ON! I haven’t got all day!”  He sounded, thought Talisa, just a little miffed and impatient – too impatient.  He then said, in a much sweeter and soothing voice, “Don’t you both want to be rich?”  They entered the alley and were inundated by what Talisa would later describe as a tsunami of spells.

Act 2, Scene 4: The (former) House of Many Tarts, Tasuil Beor

It takes a lot to surprise a druid – once you get over the shock of encountering intelligence in every living thing, there is very little room left for astonishment.  And Amy Omore Earthsoul was amazed. 

A visit to the Mews had sent her to meet journeyman Hunter Stephan Josso.  He’d rented his hawk to a dwarf who had, on the day he was supposed to return it, informed him that the bird had simply flown away and never returned.  The dwarf had paid him handsomely, but Josso still mourned the loss.  As it turned out, the dwarf, named Erik Dorada, had brown hair. (It could be a wig, she thought.)  The Guild contract had his address.

Her search had brought her to a run-down but still respectable neighborhood, a section that the locals called “High Dudgeon.”  It had earned the name from the time when the then King of Beor and the Royal family owned a House used for romantic trysts and secret meetings, which had subsequently (upon being discovered by religious extremists) been burned to the ground, leaving many of the court nobility with real estate that had suddenly become considerably less desirable.

It turned out that Mr. Dorada’s address was an entire building – a former house of ill repute, the bronze plaque by the door stated.  It was, surprisingly, an historical monument – on the outside, at least.  Inside was a different story.  An elderly orc let her in.  The woman’s name was Cursalla Dustbuster.

“Master Dorada is out for the morning.  Maybe the whole day.  I never know, he tells me nothing.  Barely speaks a word.  You’re welcome to wander about, but don’t tell him I let you or he’ll have a right nasty fit.  I don’t expect any of his work will make much sense to you, because it doesn’t to anyone else.”  Cursalla stifled a mighty yawn.

“I never get any sleep, with all of his swearin’ and clangin’ and chantin’ and singin’  – you’d have been as likely to find him snoring away, asleep on one of his creations.  For all that, he pays well.  He means well too, I think.  He’s just a bit off, is all.  Would you like some koppee?  Master Erik has it brought in special from the Old Priest and Rat Tavern in Valridge.  Loves his koppee, he does.”  Amy declined the offer and began exploring.

 Artwork and diagrams littered the hallways and most of the available floorspace.  In one room, she found an artist’s drawing easel, with an incredibly life-like drawing of a hawk.  On the walls were drawings of hawks and their body parts – wings, feet, skeleton, eyes – all in incredibly precise detail.  In a corner, surrounded by a small cloud of flies, which were in turn being stalked by a small spider hanging from the ceiling, was the corpse of what she assumed was Stephan Josso’s hawk.  Jesses were still attached to its legs.

Upon closer inspection, it had been pinned to a wooden board, on which were markings and commentaries, all written in impossibly small letters.  In the next room, there were paintings of (presumably) Josso’s hawk in flight – dozens of them.  Amy expected one of them to fly off the page, the likenesses were so lifelike. On the next floor, there were rooms full of materials – boxes of hawk feathers, bolts of cloth, jars of metal bits and pieces, tools and piles of wooden planks.  Metal pipes lay haphazardly in one room; in another were rows and rows of masks along the wall – human, dwarf, orc, goblin, netherling, gnoll and many others.  Leathers of many kinds hung in sheets from the walls.

One room was obviously Dorada’s bedroom – although it seemed not to have been slept in recently.  Beside it was a safe that literally shone with magic power.  And perched on a window, watching her, was a hawk.  Its stance was one she knew well.  Her hand axe had already sliced the bird in half before she ever would have had the chance to cast an Earthbind spell.  Amy sat down slowly, onto the bed.  She was not in the habit of killing birds or animals, much less ones who usually liked or respected her.

The bird had launched itself at her, with no provocation on her part.  Come to think of it, its eyes had seemed strangely empty.  She forced herself to look down at the dead hawk and discovered the reason why.  Gathering it up carefully, she wrapped it in a spare cloak from her satchel and made her way to Saint Blodwin’s Blooming Bower to meet with the others.

Act 2, Scene 5: Hall of Judgement, Tasuil Beor Govt. Center

Fafhrd DeVenn had only once been to the Hall of Judgement, back when he was a boy of twelve.  He’d killed the man behind his parents’ murders, the man who’d sent his younger brother to a gruesome end.  He’d pled guilty and then been spared from hanging by an aged half-orc, who over the next 4 years had made him into a gladiator.  Today, he was a free man.

He also had a nine-year-old in tow, little Frannie Dusa, whose mother had had the misfortune of dying young, leaving Frannie to fend for herself.  Not anymore, he thought, not if he had anything to do with it.  They were sitting on one of the benches outside the Hall, waiting for the red-haired dwarf.  Frannie had indeed noticed a ‘peculiar-looking’ dwarf – she saw him often here, where she saw gold pieces changing hands.  It sounded very, very suspicious.

Soon enough they spotted him.  He walked, thought Fafhrd, as if he owned the place, calling the guards at the courtroom doors by name, addressing judges by their first names as they came from or went to their chambers.  He spent a long time examining the list of prisoners being arraigned, and cases being tried.  He made notes in a small leather-bound book.  He spotted the dwarf dropping sizable pouches into the hands of at least half a dozen magistrates.  That was all he needed.

Returning to Market Square, he found an older couple who lived in Valridge, and paid them to take Frannie to the tavern.  “Tell the barkeep, the young Ravinger, that You’re with me and the Understudies.”  “The under what?” asked the girl.  He had her repeat his name, and their group’s name.  “Ravinger’s a good person.  I’ll see you soon. You’re to get a nice warm meal and a nice soft bed.”  When she was safely on her way, he returned to the Hall.

He convinced a magistrate to tell him about the dwarf, and the bribes, and the sort of favors the bribes bought.  Gladiators are often given gifts from admirers, many of them being human gifts for an hour or so.  Get them to talk, and there is no telling what sort of interesting things you can learn about their many ‘recipients.’  There was no violence of any kind.  Just words, words, and more words.  Satisfied he’d uncovered an important piece of the puzzle, Fafhrd set out for Blodwin’s Bloomers.

Act 2, Scene 6: First Dwarven Savings Bank, Tasuil Beor

One thing Talisa was certain of is that she was somehow immune to whatever was affecting Sarah.  There was an intricate blanket of spells, some expertly woven together and others piled on top of each other in a distracted, slapdash manner.  All of this would be unnoticed by those without training – hence Sarah’s condition – so, that ruled out anyone with a magical profession being duped.  Her talent with aromancy must be strong enough to break through the illusion.

They were led down a dusty narrow alley to a solid brick wall.  The dwarf raised his hand and touched one brick, which moved inward a few inches, triggering a section of the wall to move aside, revealing a space that resembled a medium- sized closet.  It was made of banged-up, rusty iron plating, but to Sarah it looked like solid gold.  There were two buttons along one side of the room, and the dwarf pressed one.

Talisa watched with growing dread as the former brick wall slid back into place, closing the three of them inside.  Truth was, she was claustrophobic.  She grabbed Sarah’s arm.  Sarah turned to look at her, and her face was alight with wonder.  “Isn’t this just amazing!  It’s all so magical!”  She sounded so childlike and sincere that Talisa wanted to slap her, but she decided it would be best to play along.  “Yes,” she answered breathily, “it is.”  Then the room gave a jolt and started moving.

The dwarf was watching them both very carefully.  Damn him, Talisa cursed inwardly, as she fought the urge to wipe away the bead of nervous sweat that was inching its way from her neck to her lower back.  Finally, the room came to a stop.  Talisa thought she heard the sound of steam being released from a tightly closed cooking pot.  A few more seconds and she might have fainted.  “Welcome, adventurers, to the First Dwarven Savings Bank.”

(What Sarah saw)

They emerged into a huge Chamber, ringed on either side with beautiful mosaics depicting scenes of immense wealth and luxury.  Sarah saw herself in several of them, and just knew that if she only deposited all of her money here, her life would be just as wonderful as what she saw in those murals.  The floor was made from expensive marble quarried from the Nethercaps.  On either side were dwarven tellers, who greeted her as she passed them by.

(What Talisa saw)

They emerged into a dirty, cramped cavern.  The pathway was lined at six-foot intervals with fist-sized stones that radiated magic.  Someone, she thought, has managed to store magic in those stones! That was an ancient, forgotten technique.  The walls were metal-plated – some substance other than iron.  As the dwarf introduced his ‘associates’, what Talisa saw were dwarven masks on round metal heads, with realistic hair, eyes, teeth and mouths that moved.  She nearly jumped when she heard them speak.  Each one wore a necklace from which hung a pendant made from more magic-infused stones.

(What Sarah saw)

The elegant dwarf stopped in front of large ornately carved desk, on which was set a pile of papers, a pen and an inkwell.  “Your money will double in our hands.  Wouldn’t you like to open an account now?  Just sign here,” he said, handing the pen to Sara.

Talisa had to stop this, now.  She had removed the tiny sachet from inside her vest earlier, and threw it at the dwarf’s face, speaking an orcish phrase which triggered the spell.  The dwarf coughed, waving the fumes away.  “Aromancer!” he spat and turned to run.  He would have gotten away, if Sarah hadn’t expertly thrown the inkwell at the back of his head.

“You’re going to tell me about what just happened, aren’t you? And where we are?” asked Sarah.

“Maybe, maybe not.” Talisa clapped her on the back. “Nice aim, by the way.  Let’s get our culprit out of here and hightail it to those Gardens!”

Spotting something, Sarah said, “Let’s take a few of these.  They won’t be needing them anymore, will they?”

Act 3, Scene 1: Blodwin’s Blooming Bower, Tasuil Beor

Four adventurers sat in the shade of a grove of sea-breeze trees.  They were a magically altered plant, whose huge leaves grew in spreading clusters of four.  The slightest of winds could cause the leaves to spin around, first one way and back another, creating the sensation that you were standing on a ship in the ocean, with breezes all around you.

“Do any of you ever wonder,” asked Amy, “about all the crazy things that are going on without our knowledge?”  When no one answered, she shrugged and said, “Neither do I.”

“So, Amy, you go first,” suggested Sarah.  Their dwarven prisoner, now awake, was bound and gagged.  They’d gotten a few strange looks from tourists in the gardens, and one priest asked if theirs was a private party, but that was all.

Amy told them her story, and when she got to the end, she dropped the hawk’s two halves on ground, which clanked when they hit.  A round piece of metal, with teeth-like ridges, rolled out, along with a few screws, and also a still faintly pulsing stone.

“The hawks were not real hawks but were like this one.  I’m guessing that safe contained more of those magicked stones. I’ll never forgive that heartless bastard for deliberately killing that hawk.  If I ever meet this Erik Dorada…”

The dwarven prisoner stood up and started stamping his feet, shouting incoherently through his gag.  Fafhrd went over to him, grabbed him by the front of his vest, and lifted him off the ground with one hand.

“You have something to say?  Promise to be good, to say it quietly, and maybe I’ll let you speak.”

The dwarf nodded slowly and began to cry.  Fafhrd tried several of the dwarf’s vest pockets until he found a handkerchief and blew the prisoner’s nose for him.  “Done crying?” he asked.  He then untied the gag.

Sarah was certain that he’d shout like a town crier, but no.  He raised his head and looked at Amy.

“I couldna kill the poor birdy. Me cousin Clive did.  They hadta fly perfectly, he said.  I didna build them right the first time.  I could make ‘em fly, but it tweren’t perfect.  What did I need, he asked.  I needta see inside, says I.  So, he killed the poor thing.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so, sorry.”

“You’re Erik Dorada!” exclaimed the druid.

“Aye,” said their prisoner.

“How does the First Dwarven Savings Bank fit in with all of this?  Why the deception?” asked Sarah.

“I needed money for me research.  I’m a dwarven tinker, and I discovered a year ago that I kin work magic with stones.  The kinda stones I need are very rare, and very expensive.  When I told me cousin, Clive Wespie, about me research, he came up with the Bank idea.  See, folk would never invest in a ragtag tinker, but make them think it’s a big respectable bank and “puddly piddly poof!” they’d be lining the streets and practically givin’ their money ta you.  It doesna hurt anyone, their money is safely invested, we sell me inventions and everybody makes money.”

“You weren’t supposed to be there today, were you?” asked Talisa gently.

“No, miss,” replied Erik, “No, I weren’t.  How’dja know?”

“Clive does all of that, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, miss.”  Sarah watched this exchange with keen interest.  Talisa was showing just how skilled a diplomat and interrogator she was, and Sarah was extremely impressed.  She was wondering where she was leading Mr. Dorada when Fafhrd spoke.

“It’s time you knew that your cousin is a very despicable man,” said the gladiator gravely, “and I’m afraid that the First Dwarven Savings Bank has hurt a lot of people.  I’ve watched him in action, and here’s what I know he’s up to, and what I’m guessing are his motives.  I witnessed Clive in the Hall of Justice bribing guards and magistrates.  I…ah…met with one magistrate and managed to convince him that it was in his best interests to tell me what he knows.”

“Now, how did you do that?” asked Talisa, “I’ll bet you offered to perform some facial rearrangement.”

“No,” said Sarah, “I’ll bet it was a little more personal in nature.”

Fafhrd bowed and continued.  “First, Erik, your cousin Clive is lying to you about the money. He’s giving you just enough to let you buy some of your stones, but he’s keeping the rest.  You don’t know how much the Bank takes in, because Clive is the one who handles your investors.  How many investors has he said the Bank has?”

“About five hundred,” said Erik defensively.

“Try more than 5,000.  The money is being used to bribe magistrates to be lenient when sentencing slavers, thieves, assassins, embezzlers and juvenile delinquents; and to bribe guards to occasionally lie about and speak well of the prisoners to judges who will not accept bribes.  He then makes it known to these criminals that they owe him a favor once they get out.  Clive ends up assisting them in or even running their activities.  He is secretly running a group of boys here in Tasuil Beor called the Prowlers, that captures orphans and the homeless for Clive to sell into slavery.  He’s creating a country-wide criminal network.  It might even stretch farther than that.”

“Clive – me cousin – he done alla th-th-that?” stuttered the magic mechanic.

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Dorada,” said Sara.

“How will we bring him to justice without getting Erik here put in jail too?” asked Amy.

“Leave that to me and my new friend,” said a familiar voice.

“Big Brother!” cried a much younger voice.

As Frannie ran up and leaped into Fafhrd’s waiting arms, Sarah approached Granny Ginny.

“I thought you only showed up when we were in trouble,” she observed, “And here I thought we were doing really well!”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, dear, have a little faith in your own abilities!  And who says I can’t show up whenever I want to?  And wipe that frown from your face, the boys won’t need my help until tomorrow.  After meeting this delightful young girl, I just had to get involved with your mission, and I’ve just the plan for things to dovetail nicely.  Now, everybody gather ‘round.  You too, sweet pea,” said Ginny, looking at Frannie, “and let’s talk about how to catch a thief.”

The Understudies and friends spent the night at Erik’s home at the former House of Many Tarts in High Dudgeon.  Cursalla Dustbuster simply gushed when she saw Frannie.  Together the two of them threw together a remarkably delicious dinner from next to nothing in the larder and the cupboards, that was served in a makeshift dining room that the Understudies discovered while exploring one of the several wings that did not suffer from what Amy playfully termed ‘inventor’s clutter.’  Ginny spent much of the night talking with Erik, asking him questions about his work and stone magic, and finally about some of the uses he could make of such a large, grandiose home.

Before moonrise, plans were set, friends and acquaintances were contacted, and certain persons in the palace were asked for favors.

Act 3, Scene 2: City Gates, Tasuil Beor

The morning was overcast.  In front of the City Gate were two lines, one for commoners on foot and the other for those merchants and nobles on horseback or pulling carts or carriages.  To most onlookers, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

To the guards posted at the Gate, whose job it was to see that no unsavory people entered the city, and no suspicious persons or banned goods left, there appeared to be just slightly more than the usual number of daily visitors.  Say, that group over there with the really tall muscular human male – they’d just bought some bread from that old orc woman with her cart.  Most likely stale, one thought.Don’t know her, thought the other.  That strange little kid – couldn’t tell if it was male or female – looking down from a rooftop across the street – who seemed to be floating maybe an inch above the ledge he or she was supposed to be sitting on – well, the mist this morning made it hard to focus.

And there was Mister Wespie with today’s bonus.  The man was prompt, if stern and a little rude.  He dropped the bag of gold in the shield hand of each guard, so’s no one could see.  The toff was a smart one.  He was followed by his gang of boys, twelve this time.  The guards watched as they split into three groups of four, and each stood at a corner of three ramshackle wagons – the wheels were warped, and the windows were boarded up, which meant they were full of contraband or such like.

The sound of royal trumpets split the morning, and who should be riding up to the gate this misty morning but the Prince and his retinue of personal guards.  They were about to open the gates and let him through when Ampersand (&) himself got off his horse and walks up to them.

“What are your names?” Ampersand asked.

“Morrie Wakine, your highness!”

“Skyler Harsh, your highness!”

“What’s the holdup at our City Gate?” he asked.

“It’s my fault,” said Sarah, stepping forward, bread in hand. “I wanted to give my little girl this bread to eat, for she’s had no breakfast today. This man,” she continued, pointing at Clive Wespie, “I paid him 3 gold pieces to take her to see her granny in Valridge, but he won’t let me give it to her.”

Wespie was slowly backing away, inching towards the exit in the Guard Tower.

Guards! Seize him!”

Fafhrd watched as he saw one guard reach for Wespie, and the other position himself at gate.

“Order your boys to open the wagons, so this woman can give her daughter that loaf of bread.”

“Do as our Prince orders,” said Wespie, spitting out the title with contempt.

At that moment, the second guard threw open the City Gates and the other let go of Wespie, who grabbed at the guard’s pouch of gold and turned to run from Tasuil Beor.  His way, however, was blocked by a full regiment of the Royal Guard, headed by none other than its Captain, Richard Thews.

The Prowlers, for that’s what the boys were, dutifully opened the wagons, exposing the three score children bound hand and foot, and gagged.  In one wagon, there were the corpses of four children, and five more with serious broken bones and lacerations.  Frannie, freed from her bondage, ran up to Fafhrd, who hoisted her onto his shoulders.  “Good job, my little mouse,” said the gladiator, kissing her on both cheeks.

It had been part of Frannie’s job to be deliberately captured by the Prowlers.  Then she was to incite the other children to riot, which Ginny had correctly predicted would force their captors to bind and gag them.  The guards were arrested for treason and the wounded children were sent to a nearby hospital.  Clive Wespie was taken to the VDD, where through various nefarious connections he escaped overnight.  His whereabouts are currently unknown.

As for Erik Dorada, our magical mechanic (or mage-ineer as Amy dubbed him) was hired outright by PANACEA (which automatically cleared him of any and all charges past or present) and made an auxiliary member of the Understudies.  He continues to operate from his home.  Through Granny Ginny’s uncanny powers of persuasion, the former House of Many Tarts was renamed the House of Many Tots, as Erik agreed to use the money unclaimed by investors in the FDSB to clothe, house, feed and educate the 65 children freed from Mr. Wespie’s wagons.

With the loss of Clive Wespie as their leader, the Prowlers were in disarray.  This came as no surprise to Fafhrd and Frannie, who had some rather ingenious plans of their own to turn them into helpers of the helpless. **

After returning to the Old Priest & Rat Tavern, Sarah and Talisa gave a Thundermug to both Fafhrd (who smiled from ear to ear) and Amy and Miss Mentos, saving several more to give to the rest of the team when they returned.  I’m drinking out of one right now – they’re shockingly cool.

** And that, as you have no doubt guessed, is yet another story.

Submitted: September 17, 2021

© Copyright 2022 Catfish Waterdancer. All rights reserved.

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