There were whispers of a defiler in the city. A local shop keeper by the name of Karlen had recently been ousted as a mage of some sort, and the townsfolk were demanding his head. No one person could agree as the circumstances of his big reveal; one story insisted that someone had put a contract on his head and the assassin had decided to make it easy on himself by accusing the shopkeeper of being a defiler. Another story claimed that Karlen had simply succumbed to sun stroke and had uttered madness in his delusional state. It caused panic none the less. There was also talk of third-party involvement; someone, somehow, had forced Karlen to claim defilement in the middle of the crowded street, guaranteeing his death to a certain degree.
None of these reports could be confirmed. They were rumors at best, and while rumors could be an interesting way to pass the time, they netted no coin. So Packy did not concern himself with such matters. He indulged the talkative mul sitting besides him at the tavern, but Packy lent only one ear. He kept his other ear to the ground for information that he could sell down the road. The mul yammered on.
Walneiros could be a pain. The mul did nothing but drink his ales and talk. Gods forbid there be a moment of silence amongst friends, though Packy had always considered “friend” to be a strong word when referring to the mul. Walnerios was useful. And Packy liked to keep useful people around. The uses were limited to the untrained eye, but Walneiros was a good distraction. He kept the eyes of passerbys on the mul and off of the laconic genasi striding alongside him. Walneiros could chat up the strangest of strangers and maintain a conversation whether they wanted to or not. And while Walneiros talked, Packy could slip away, find or trade information, and slip back into the scene without so much as a raised eyebrow. It kept Packy’s pockets discreet but full, and it staved off the loneliness for Walneiros another day. Everybody wins.
Even so, Packy wished the stout mul would shut his mouth every now and again.
“I’m telling ya,” Walneiros said. “This whole place is going to hell. straight to flippin’ hell I tells ya.” A hiccup interrupted his train of thought. “Mage king dead. Defilers walking free through the streets. My empty stein. This place is going to hell.”
“Sure thing, Walneiros,” Packy sighed. He was supposed to meet one of his contacts at the tavern this afternoon before his shift at the skiff yards, but the defiler nonsense had apparently scared the contact into hiding, as it had many people in the city who were not directly connected to the angry mob that had been accumulating for the past hour. Packy heard in passing that a group was forming near the market’s center and demanding some sort of justice. Interesting, perhaps, but worth any money. He was hoping his contact could give him information on a weapons shipment that was passing by within the week. That was worth something.
Packy was a higher-end low life. He was the last buffer between the street rats and the middle men of the underground; charismatic enough to speak clearly, but ugly enough for the higher-paying customers to ignore him all together. His genasi markings and general fear of the arcane had cursed him to life of a information scavenger, but there were none who could claim to be his better; not in Tyr, at least. He had made damn sure of that. Packy was the shadowy ambassador for the street rats, and anything they knew, he knew. And if the middle level criminals wanted to know something, they contacted Packy. And only Packy. He had spent years gaining a monopoly on information trading through shiv and intimidation, and over time he had bottle necked the information outlet until he was the only bridge. To maintain such a reputation without anyone important knowing him was no easy or inexpensive feat. The Shadow Herald is what they called him. It was both parts ominous and tacky, and he had chuckled the first time he heard what people had called him. It was fitting.
Of course, Walneiros knew nothing of Packy’s real job. To the mul, Packy was just another free-lance skiff driver and a great listener. Walneiros had even mentioned the Shadow Herald more than twice to Packy and speculated as to what the herald actually was. Packy had shrugged at the prospect and mumbled, “Gossip, I’m sure.”
Packy leaned beyond his barstool to check the sundial just outside the tavern window. “We have to go,” he said to his companion.
“Yes. One for the road, then,” Walneiros said as he raised his hand to get the barmaid’s attention.
“No,” Packy said. He clasped a hand around the mul’s wrist and forced it down. “You have had enough.”
“Aw, come on, Packy,” the mul whined. “Just a little one.”
“We must go,” Packy repeated. He inched his friend away from the bar. Walneiros resisted at first, but when his fingers could no longer grip the side of the bar, he surrendered to the genasi’s will and shuffled out of the tavern.
Packy watched his friend stumble along the road. He was singing again. It was just after mid day and he was already singing. Packy felt bad for the guy. While Packy was not one for family or alliances, he figured anyone who had gone through what Walneiros had gone through all those years ago deserved a few drinks every now and again. Packy had heard the story two or three times over the years when Walneiros decided that it was time to get into the harder drinks. He wondered if Walneiros could remember any of the times he had broken down crying in front of Packy over the loss of his wife and child. Had the mul done this intentionally, perhaps to foster a closer connection between the two? Or was he simply a raging alcoholic who couldn’t help but get black-out drunk every now and again? Packy figured both.
He steered Walneiros away from a grocery stand.
“Whoop. Thanks, there, Packy. Damn near bit me, it did,” the mul hiccupped. “As I was saying. . . Erm. . . what was I saying?”
“Taxes,” Packy mumbled.
“Yes! Taxes! Can you believe what that blithering coward of a king is doing for taxes these days? It’s criminal, I tells ye!”
“It’s criminal,” Packy repeated.
“Tax this cactus. Tax that dress. Tax the family jewels. How has nobody slit his throat yet? I heard the nobles can’t even agree on that guy. Pfft. Nobles.” Walneiros spat on the ground. “Houty-touty dandies, is what.”
“Dandies,” Packy said.
“Dandies is right. We should just go to the nobles and be like, ‘hey! we deserve more money!’ And then we beat the crap out of every last one.”
“Every last one.”
“Every last one is right. There’s a good in doing that, you know? Robbing from the rich to give to the poor.” Walneiros elbowed his genasi companion. “Poor us, eh, Packy?”
“Poor us,” Pack echoed.
“Poor us, Packy. Poor us. It’s not our fault we were born a couple of working stiffs. Why should they get special treatment just because they copulated? Inbred is what they are, I tells ya. Inbred. I heard from a good source they’re all cousins. Some of them are pretty dim-witted, too. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that tree is getting smaller every year.”
“Every year.” Walneiros went silent. Packy counted the seconds as they ticked by. He was hoping today would be the day the mul would break his record of eleven consecutive seconds of peace and quiet. “Say, Packy,” Walneiros began. Eight seconds. A genasi could dream at least. “What does Quierris want with us today anyway? I thought she had all her shifts covered.”
“Many refused to show up today,” Packy said. “She sent me a messenger this morning. Something about the fear of sickness. She is short drivers. Offered us work. We need work. I agreed to get you here.”
“Well I hope she’s paying us extra on my day off,” Walneiros grumbled. Packy didn’t much care for the driving of skiffs, but they were often times excellent sources of information. No one ever suspected the quiet genasi minding his own business as he piloted a skiff across the desert. Packy even used his pull to influence the travel decisions of some of the nobles who wanted to remain clandestine in their dealings. He put in a few good words with the right people, and within a week he could have a skiff full of merchants discussing insider trading as they traveled from Tyr to Silver Spring.
As far as Walneiros was concerned, piloting a skiff was the only job he had not lost in the past five years. Once he got out of the city, it was hard for his drunken state to run a skiff into anything.
The two companions approached the skiff yard and kept an eye out for Quierris. Packy stopped on the edge of the yard and scanned the lot. A shadow fell upon them. The two turned around to see what was blocking out the sun. Packy shaded one eye with his hand and looked to the building behind them. Perched upon the roof was the unmistakable figure of a thri-kreen. Packy couldn’t make out any details while looking directly into the sky, but he could tell the insect was watching them, perhaps even studying them. But for what purpose? Before Packy could think of an answer, the insect spread his wings and leapt out ahead of them, disappearing into the lot behind a skiff. Wings on a thri-kreen were rare. Packy begin to search his memory for a thri-kreen with wings, but could think of none in the city. Might be worth investigating, he thought.
“That was weird,” Walneiros said. “Thri-kreen give me the creeps, I tells ya. All them limbs and gross-looking mouths. It’s like they got a bunch of fingers on their lips. Gives me the shivers. And I heard the women eat the men after they have the sex.” Packy searched the lot for the thri-kreen, expecting him to leap out again. But he appeared to be gone.
“That’s a myth,” Packy said.
“Eh? How you figure? I’ll have you know I heard that from a reliable source.” Packy looked his friend in the eye.
“It’s a myth,” he repeated.
“What makes your source so much better than mine?” Packy turned away and started towards the inner lot. Walneiros shrugged. “I just don’t get him sometimes.”
The two made their way through the lot, weaving in and out of the various rigs in search of their employer. Walneiros, of course, was talking. While passing under one of the taller skiffs, Packy turned to Walneiros to ask him to repeat something. A man dropped down in front of Packy, startling him and causing him to jump back with his hand on his dagger.
“Oh, hello, there,” said the man. He was dangling upside down and his face was beginning to red. He was a well-dressed, middle-aged human who had been climbing along the skiff. Packy recognized him as a noble, and a soft one at that. He moved his hand away from his dagger. “I don’t suppose you work here? Fine skiff. I was examining it for purchasing purposes. It seems a bit more expensive, but certainly worth the coin. I think I will try to talk my company into this one.” The skiff was clearly broken. Packy figured the man dim-witted in addition to being soft. “I slipped, as it were, and I got tangled in my climbing gear whilst examining the deck. But at least I didn’t hit the ground.” He was also a terrible liar. The “climbing gear” he refereed to was the riggings on the skiff itself. “I don’t suppose you gentlemen could get me loose, could you? My vision is beginning to blur.” They didn’t have much time to think it over. A goliath eased his way past them and lifted the human free of his entanglement.
“This is mine,” the goliath mumbled.
“Thank you, Number Four,” the human said. “Put me down, please.” The goliath ignored the human’s orders and instead shouldered the man, starting in the opposite direction. “I said put me down! Hey! Hey! My hat! You forgot my hat! Turn around, I say!” The goliath continued to ignore him as he walked between the skiffs. They could still hear the human making demands, though they could no longer see him.
“What an odd couple,” Walneiros said. “Hey, look here. Now this is a fine hat.” Walneiros retrieved a hat lying in the sand and dusted it off. He donned the article of clothing. “What do you think? Am I a noble now?” The mul looked ridiculous in such an affluent hat. Packy removed the hat and examined it. It was worth more than what Walneiros made in a month piloting skiffs.
“We should find Queirris,” Packy said.
They found the dragonborn in the middle of negotiations with a teifling and a hooded individual. Packy knew better than to bother her during her business. She may have talked sweet and acted friendly, but she was a psychopath. Of that there was no doubt. Many a driver had disappeared from her employment for one reason or another. Packy knew what had happened to them, of course, but the mul had no idea. And he figured Walneiros was better off not knowing.
When they walked within a few yards, the hooded one shot a look in their direction. It startled Packy a bit, half because he wasn’t expecting such an alert response, and half because the human’s face was melted on one side. Packy felt a bit of his lunch come back. When the human determined that the approaching genasi and mul were of no immediate threat, he went back to the negotiations between the teifling and Quairris. Quairris had a smile on her scaly face, but Packy could tell she was perturbed. From a casual observation, the teifling had her on the run. He was as glib as he was confident, and he had no fear of the 6’7” dray staring him down. He was amused by Quairris troubles, but he was intrigued by the human. There was talk a scarred human wandering the lands and casting magic about. It was unlikely, but this could be that human.
“You guys aren’t allowed in either, huh?” Packy looked away from the deal. A thri-kreen had approached them and taken a nonchalant lean against one of the skiffs.
“How do you mean, lad,” Walneiros asked.
“My friends won’t let me near the talking anymore,” the insect clicked. “They say I screw things up.”
“Yer awfully open about that,” Walneiros said. His voice was a tad shaky.
“Yeah, well. So what do you guys do?” The thri-kreen waited for a response. Walneiros averted his gave as he swayed back and forth trying his hardest to look like he had not heard the question. After twelve uncomfortable seconds of silence, Packy responded to the question. “Drivers,” he mumbled.
“That’s neat. My friends are buying a skiff right now. Maybe you could be our pilot?” The thri-kreen smiled at the mul, and it looked as though he were taking a liking to him. Packy studied the bug man, but noticed no wings. Which meant that this was a second thri-kreen they had encountered in the lot.
Walneiros swallowed hard trying not to look terrified.
“I, erm, well I don’t know,” he mumbled. “That depends on a lot. It depends on things. There are things it depends on, you see-“
“Quairris employs around thirty pilots on a freelance basis,” Packy interrupted. “It’s hard to say what she will do and when she will do it, to be honest. The woman is mad. Savvy, for sure. But mad.” The thri-kreen blinked at Packy as he processed the information. Walneiros inched away from his personal space when he thought the bug wasn’t looking.
“Oh, okay,” he replied. “Do you guys have any good stories from piloting the skiffs? Like cool adventures or buried treasure?”
“Ya know, I’m not that great at telling stories,” Walneiros claimed. Packy snorted. If only. “And driving skiffs is a really boring job. A lot of waiting. And a lot of. . . more waiting. You wouldn’t be interested.” The mul continued to inch away from the insect as he spoke. “I have to go now and do some skiff things. You wouldn’t be interested.” The mul dashed off in another direction. “Nice meeting you,” he called back.
“What was that about,” the thri-kreen asked.
“Things, I guess,” Packy shrugged. Walneiros’ phobia of the insects was amusing.
“Paxton,” a voice called. Quairris approached him. “Where is Walneiros? I just saw him ten seconds ago.”
“Things,” Packy said.
“Well I’ve got a job for him. These adventurers need a pilot.”
“Adventurers?” Packy thought it over for a moment. He doubted Walneiros could handle such a trip. “For how long?”
“Until they die or can’t pay anymore,” she growled. “Where is he?” Packy nodded in the direction of the mul, and Quairris stomped off.
“Oh, neat. Looks like he will be our pilot,” the thri-kreen said. Something caught his attention. “Oh, hey. Where’d you get that hat?” He pointed to the hat Packy had hanging from his belt.
“Found it,” he replied without skipping a beat.
“Chad has one just like it. You guys must shop at the same place. He said it was expensive.”
“Chad? Chad who?”
“Chad,” the thri-kreen shrugged. “I only know him as Chad.”
“Is it Chadrosky the thirteenth? The merchant? You know him?”
“Uh. . .maybe? He’s not a merchant as far as I know. He’s a shaman.”
“He’s a. . . he’s a shaman?” Packy’s head begin to swirl. On the one hand, shamans were goody-goody spirits guides. They weren’t any good for coin. On the other hand, if he followed a merchant of the Fortunatus house, that could lucrative in more ways than one. He tried to remember if he had heard anything about the Thirteenth being spiritually connected. “What kind of adventures do you go on anyway?”
“Mn’Kar.” The thri-kreen turned to the voice. The teifling and the disfigured human stood a few feet away. It was the teifling who had spoken. He glared at the genasi. Mn’Kar looked back and forth between the two parties before slinking over to the human. But Packy was now more interested in the teifling. He recognized the teifling as Odo, the infamous bard. He could be as ruthless as he was cunning. No wonder Quairris had been troubled trying to negotiate with him. Packy made a note to watch his tongue.
“Excuse me, but would you fine gentlemen happen to be traveling with Chadrosky the Thirteenth?” Packy was beginning to imagine piles and piles of gold.
“Why do you ask,” said the teifling.
“I just heard he was an interesting guy. I have this business in mind, and I was wondering if I might talk to him about making a few investments with me.” Packy was starting to get nervous. He couldn’t tell if they bought his story or not.
“Can’t help you, friend,” Odo replied. The three adventurers turned away. Packy tried to think quick without giving away his intentions, but he knew he had to watch his step around the bard. He could think of nothing just short of lying, but he was sure that would get him killed. Still, he had to figure out a way to be their pilot. There was too much money at stake.
“Oh, my hat,” someone said. The human from the entangled skiff walked out from the lot and up to Packy. “I thought I had lost it. I’ll have it back now, if you don’t mind.” He held out his hand. The other adventurers eyed the genasi carefully.
“Of course,” Packy smiled, handing him the hat. “I was looking for you.” The human replace the hat upon his head.
“Thank you, lad. I was dying in this sunlight.”
“You must be the Chad the thri-kreen spoke of. Are you Chadrosky the Thirteenth?” The human frowned.
“You mean my father. I’m the fourteenth.” Oh, thought Packy. The fourteenth was notoriously lazy. Still might be worth the effort.
“My mistake,” Packy apologized. He caught figures in the corner of his eye. Quairris was marching Walneiros pack towards Odo and his little gang.
“This is Walneiros,” the Dray said. “He’ll be happy to drive you to where ever your heart desires.” The mul smiled but avoided making eye contact with Mn’Kar.
“At your service,” he mumbled. Without so much as a warning, a thri-kreen dropped from the sky in front of Waleiros. Walnerois cried out and fell onto his backside, his body shaking. The thri-kreen shuffled closer to Walneiros and came face to face with the terrified mul.
“Gods, Arachnor,” said the hooded human. “You nearly gave everyone a heart attack.”
“This one smells like fear,” Arachnor clicked. “He’s no good to us.”
“Don’t be rude,” the human said. “I’m sure he’ll do just fine.” The mul tried to control his terror.
“Get up, Walneiros,” the dray ordered. “Or I’ll see to it you never work in this city again.”
“Yes, flesh sack,” Arachnor teased. “On your feet.” His sadistic pleasure was palpable. “I’ve changed my mind. I want this one.” He chuckled as the mul got to his feat. “Boo,” Arachnor yelped. Walneiros jumped back again. The thri-kreen chuckled.
“He will die too easy,” a deep voice chimed in. The goliath from before made his way into the scene and took a spot behind Chad, crossing his arms and eying the dray with discontent. It was as if he were trying to crush here with his stare alone.
“That’s what I’m counting on,” Arachnor said, salivating his mantis-mouth with his mantis-mouth parts.
“He’s really not this bad,” Chadrosky interjected. “He’s just trying to scare you.” Walneiros looked as though he were on the verge of tears.
“He’ll be fine,” Quairris insisted.
Packy knew what she was doing. Rag-tag team of adventurers? An indetermined amount of time? A desert packed with peril? Waleiros’ unmistakable phobia of mantis-men? Quairris was trying to get him killed.
To the exact reason, Packy could not say. Maybe it was his constant drinking and driving. It was probably his constant drinking and driving. He had wrecked one of her skiffs just the other week. Quairris would not simply fire him, though. She wanted revenge. She wanted to make sure he would never wreck anything ever again. If Waleiros took this job, he was going to die; and that’s the way she wanted it.
At first it didn’t add up; she would lose money because Walneiros would not be able to turn in the payment. Packy smiled as he caught his mistake. She just wanted Walneiros gone and she wanted to remain blameless in the matter. And no one would blame her if he died in the wastes for any reason. The skiff was already paid for, though at a discount thanks to the teifling. She didn’t care about the fair; it was small price to pay to be rid of her burden.
Packy, on the other hand, would be fine.
“I’ll take this one,” Packy said. Eyes fell on him, including the stone-cold gaze of his employer. Be cool, he thought.
“I’ve already given the job to Walneiros,” Quairris insisted.
“He’s clearly sick,” Packy said. “Look at him. He’s got the shivers, he can’t stand up right, won’t make eye contact. He’s got something. Maybe he’s got that mystery sickness everyone has been talking about.”
“No one has that,” Mn’Kar said. “We quar-“ A swift strike from the shaman’s walking stick silenced the thri-kreen in haste. Mn’Kar held his head to stave off the pain.
“Haven’t heard of any sickness,” Chad said with a nervous laugh. “You say he’s sick? Well we wouldn’t want that.” So they do know something about that, Packy thought. This is turning into an interesting day.
“Seems fine to me,” the disfigured human said as he examined the mul.
“He’s very sick,” Packy maintained. “He needs rest. I’ll go in his place.” Packy glanced over to the dray. Her fists clenched, her claws drawing blood from her scaly palms. Had there not been customers present, Packy had no doubt she would tear his spine out. She could do it, too. He had seen it done. He pretended not to notice her. “You’re sick, aren’t you, Walneiros,” Packy said, sneaking a kick to his shin when he hoped no one would see.
“Um,” Walneiros stuttered. “I am sick. I am very sick. I’ve got this shivers, you see. Not great for driving.”
“So he’s sick. I will drive you.” Packy turned to Quairris.
“If the mul doesn’t want to go, we won’t make him,” said the melted-faced human. “And you know these parts?”
“Better than anyone,” Packy said. “Plus, I could use the money.”
“We’re wasting time,” Odo interjected. “Whoever is driving us, load up our things and let’s get to it.” Odo hurried out of the conversation. Packy didn’t wait for Quairris’ permission. He followed Odo to the skiff.
With the gear stored and the sails prepped, Packy did one final check of the wind. Walneiros had helped with the preparation of the skiff, so it had taken them half the time. The mul watched as Packy did some orienteering and studied the wind cone shaking and snapping in a north-eastern direction.
“Packy,” Walneiros said. He paused, searching his mind for the right words. “Thanks.” Packy allowed himself a smile. Odo the Bard? Chadrosky the XIV, son of one of the wealthiest noble merchants in the city? Adventurers in search of unimaginable treasure? No, Walneiros. Thank you.
“Anything for a friend,” he replied.
“You be safe out there.” The wind started to pick up, blowing dust all across the lot. Packy smiled again and he pulled a cord and set the sail. The skiff caught the wind and jerked off, surprising the company and taking the adventurers east of the city. Packy turned back to Walneiros and called out to him just before he was out of ear shot.
“How bad could it be?”