The morning bought the promised hangover, cruel daggers of sunlight stabbing through the shutters. Stathis dragged herself up, shaking herself into some semblance of wakefulness and into the common room. Whatever gods had decided that healing magic wouldn’t work on hangovers were overdue for being cast out of the divine hierarchy.
Semari was already there, sprawled out on the battered armchair like an over-size cat, in a contorted position that couldn’t possible be comfortable, twitching in a semi-sleep. Janaxia, surprisingly, was already up, drinking some heavily-scented herbal concoction, elegantly attired in a silk gown, her red lock now faded to almost-invisibility amongst her black hair.
‘I believe it’s time to divide the loot, Miss Stathis?’
Janaxia put her tea down, reaching over and pinching the back of Semari’s neck, pulling upwards, for all the world like someone handling a kitten, pulling her into wakefulness. Well, it was better than just blasting her with probably-evil magic, even as Semari mewed in protest, slowly rousing herself before the magic word ‘loot’ penetrated through her consciousness, her eyes flicking open as she squirmed out of Janaxia’s pinch.
‘Time for the good stuff! I’ve got needs that won’t pay for themselves, know what I’m saying?’
‘Regrettably, yes.’ Janaxia gave an exaggerated shiver. ‘But some honest coin would be sincerely appreciated. My stock of Sethan leaves is running low, and they are rather expensive.’ She took a sip from her cup, followed by a rather exaggerated sigh of pleasure.
Stathis frowned. ‘Setha in the Ash? Isn’t that place ruled by demon-born slavers that sacrifice their slaves to infernal god-kings?’
Janaxia shrugged. ‘I make no comment upon their domestic policy. The tea they make, however, is delicious.’
Semari stuck her head into the steam, taking a deep sniff despite Janaxia’s look of distaste. ‘Evil smells like spice and oranges. Thought it’d be more like steak, bit meatier.’
With that pronouncement, she pulled back and leapt to her feet, seemingly now fully awake and irritatingly sober, backflipping off the chair. Stathis briefly wondered if it was some weird effect of the tea, but Janaxia drank litres of the stuff and was frequently so languid she could be mistaken for unconscious, if not outright dead.
‘So, where is our esteemed moneykeeper?’
As if on cue, their last member entered. Parth was still dressed for combat, but must have spent all night cleaning her gear, looking ready for another quest already, despite the quiet of the morning. Another one that showed no sign of the night’s excesses, as much as she showed anything. In her hands she carried a metal chest, the metal banding glowing with magical runes (in truth, they did nothing except glow, but it looked impressive, and had thus far kept anyone from trying to break in).
Everyone went silent as Parth crossed the room, placing the chest on the table with an air of almost reverence, as though watching a bishop place a holy relic upon the altar. After putting it down, Stathis tugged on her necklace, pulling on the chain and then having to stoop awkwardly to get the key to the lock. The chest popped open, revealing the wealth they’d looted from the most recent job – a heap of gems, a bag of coins, and a few other treasures, odd bits of art that might be worth coin to the right person.
‘So, anyone want to claim any of this, or is it going to be sold and we split the coin? Janaxia, you said something about the necklace, that you might know someone willing to pay for it?’ Stathis pulled out the necklace.
Janaxia took it, carefully examining it before nodding. ‘Yes, I think I know their descendants. They love to boast of their lineage. I think I can probably get three hundred for it. Less a finder’s fee, of course.’
Heaven’s only knew how much Janaxia was gouging them for, but they’d get less than half that if they just hawked it, so it was a bonus.
‘Very good. Anyone want gems, or think any of the coins are special?’ She only got blank looks in response. ‘OK, so that’s all going to Kaanan, if you would do the honours, Parth. Yesterday’s bill comes to fifty gold, we pay that first, then split the rest. I’m claiming a shield as expenses, Semari, you need some new armour which is coming from Janaxia’s share. Parth, you need any…’
She was interrupted by Janaxia. ‘I don’t see why I should have to pay for her armour!’
‘It was your creepy weird fake-magic acid-darkness-tentacle thing that broke it. You break it, you buy it, them’s the rules,’ said Semari.
‘That spell is effective, but give us some warning next time. And yes, if you damage party equipment, then you need to pay for it. Same as when Semari broke Parth’s bow. If you don’t like it, then learn to aim better.’ Stathis tried to be more diplomatic.
Janaxia sniffed and glowered, but didn’t respond further.
‘Right. So, get a shield, and some leather armour, so we can tally up.’
‘Yes.’ Parth clinked the chest shut and trundled away. For all Stathis knew, she could be robbing them blind, but at least she was easy to deal with.
Before Stathis had the chance to return to her room, or even grab some water, there was a hammering on the door, sound booming through her head. She shuddered, as both Janaxia and Semari studiously ignored the sound. When it became clear they weren’t going to react, she went to see who felt the need to make such a damn racket.
She pulled the door open, taking a deep breath ready to unleash some harsh words. Instead, she was met by a wall of cloth, shading out the morning sun. After blinking a few times, she managed to see it properly, that it was a bulky humanoid figure, their head hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat and thick veil, long, baggy sleeves hiding their hands. They carried a thick ivory staff, the top an obsidian sphere. Damn, now some wizard, that was all she needed. A voice came from beneath the veil, deep and heavily accented.
‘Master Stathis, yes. The business we spoke of to be completed, if you would.’
They walked in, before Stathis could turn them aside. From behind, their bulk was even more apparent, although their posture was odd, and their feet clicked and scratched against the floor.
‘Hey! You can’t just barge in!’ The wizard ignored her and entered the common room, staff rapping on the floor.
‘The rogue and the, ah, wizard, good. All survived the night. But you have work to be done, yes. A quest to be done, correct?’ They removed their hat and veil, sunlight glinting off brassy scales, the head of a lizard, serpentine tongue flicking through the air. A memory tickled her mind, something from last night. Had they bought a round of drinks?
‘Engaged your company, I did, to seek out the item we discussed, yes. Readying to leave, you should be, no?’
Stathis looked over at her companions for assistance, receiving only blank looks and shrugs back. ‘I think you must have us confused with someone else.’
They twisted their mouth and showed spiky teeth, in something that might have been intended as a smile. ‘Oh no, most sure not – your hair quite distinctive, like gold, yes.’ Normally, that would come across as a creepy compliment, but in this context, it just felt unnerving, as they stared, lizard-eyes still and unblinking. ‘All signed and agreed.’ They reached into a sleeve, pulling out a scroll and unrolling it with a flare.
Her head hurt far too much to try and make out the words, but she could saw a set of signatures at the bottom. Well, two signatures, one eldritch glyph and a thumb-print. Janaxia moved with sudden speed, plucking the thing from their hand, eyes flicking over the content.
‘What is this!? To find the Dragon’s Veil! And at cost only, not even time and materials?’ She raised a hand, already burning with eldritch energy, intent on destroying it.
They gestured with their staff, the text shimmering brilliant, azure blue, the scroll hovering in the air. ‘Willingly signed and bound, yes. And great wealth to be found, Karilimanath’s horde never looted. The Veil I seek, the rest I care not for.’
‘Hey, how do we know you’re not, like, evil, and going to take the veil and then go all crazy and evil and try to murder us?’ Semari was peering at the stranger intently, apparently never having seen one of the dragonfolk before. Or just interested, it was hard to tell.
‘The truth I speak, and evil is not within me. Correct, yes, master Stathis?’ Their eyes met, and Stathis focused through the raging hangover, focusing on the spark of power within her, sensing the divine energy, suddenly ringing through loud and clear, a blessed symphony of perfection and power. One of his eyes flicked shut, in an unnerving wink.
‘Yeah, he’s on the level. Unfortunately.’ Just because some agent of the heavens was here, didn’t mean she had to be nice to them, or work for cheap. ‘Dammit. Janaxia, what’s with the contract?’
Apparently testing for sorcerous powers involved sniffing, then actually licking the contract. ‘It is indeed an enchanted contract, binding us to fulfil the task to the best of our efforts. It does contain the alleged location of the Dragon’s Veil, as well as binding us not to discuss it with other parties, all the usual safeguards. And there are indeed no limitations on what treasure we claim, other than returning the Veil itself. However, the timelines are strict, and the penalty for non-completion…’ She paled, rarely a good sign.
‘A sacred treasure, yes. Now, a quest you must leave for as soon as possible.’ They clapped their hands (claws?) together.
‘Dammit. How bad are the penalties?’
He leant back, tail slipping out from beneath his robes, faint hiss of smoke wafting out from his nostrils. Stathis went to confer with her companions, or at least Janaxia, as Semari was currently occupied, now bold enough to poke their scales.
‘Right, so how shafted are we?’
Janaxia was holding the contract at some distant – she really should just get spectacles, despite her vanity. ‘Significantly. Although we are allowed to keep all treasure found other than the Veil itself, it says that we have to travel to the Swordgrave. As soon as possible.’
‘OK, so much for taking a break. Gods, anything about guardians, or what we’re fighting?’
‘Not specifically, but there are reputed to be a lot of monsters. And the Steelshell Beast, of course. I believe that Tralnis the Reaver is reputed to be there as well.’
‘Could get their bounty, even up the books that way. And maybe get some basilisk gizzards or something, wizards are always after stuff like that.’
Janaxia shuddered. ‘As long as I do not have to participate in the butchery myself, then that sounds agreeable. Although being taken advantage of in such a way seems rather disagreeable. Once this is dealt with, perhaps a more permanent solution can be found?’
‘We’re not murdering them. It was a dick move, but no murder.’
‘If you must, but it really would be the simplest solution. As we are to be leaving, then I must ready myself.’
She probably had to make sure her clothing would be appropriate for whatever they might meet en-route, making sure she had robes for both killing bandits and running away from ancient, primordial monsters.
‘Fine, we’ll take the contact.’
They were bearing Semari’s poking and prodding with good grace, as she tested the rigidity and smoothness of their skin. ‘Good, as agreed, yes. For goodwill, some money, for speed.’ He handed over a bag, satisfyingly heavy. ‘Contact me at Whitecliff, by the Crystal Lovers, if alive.’ The staff glowed, and he vanished in a blur of blue energy, leaving only faint scorch marks on the ground.
Wizards. Why did they always have to be such a pain in the ass? Although the coin should get them moving, at least.